—Amy M. Gardner
If you are awaiting bar results and imagining what to do if you didn’t pass, or if you know you didn’t pass, have a seat, and humor a former law school dean of students. I saw many students who did not pass the first time, and I hope that a little advice might help you get through what is undoubtedly a difficult experience.
First, let’s put things in perspective. Depending on the state and the exam period, anywhere from one-third to more than half of exam takers do not pass. And Vinny Gambini (of the classic My Cousin Vinny, of course) is not the only famous lawyer who didn’t pass on the first go. In fact, you need only Google “famous lawyers who failed the bar exam” to find a host of them. Disclaimer: I haven’t independently verified any of these, but, according to the internet, everyone from California Governor Jerry Brown, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Michelle Obama, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and former California Governor Pete Wilson all failed on their first try.
While they may not be famous (yet), I have also seen former students and colleagues take more than one try and go on to be gainfully and happily employed in law firms big and small, in-house, in government, and in public interest organizations. Would any of them choose that path? Maybe not. But the sky didn’t fall in on any of them, and all undoubtedly came out stronger and better able to relate to clients in trouble. They all turned out just fine, and you will too.
So here we go: if you have gotten the news you didn’t pass, first give yourself some space and privacy to process. Do not take to Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or anywhere else to announce your disappointment. Not even a little. Not even a “feeling frustrated today” status update. Back away from the computer and put down the phone. Seeing the people who are posting that they passed will not help. In a few days, you’ll be ready to post back appropriately congratulatory messages. Today is not that day.
Second, once you’ve had time to process, reach out to the closest people in your support network who truly understand what you are going through and have only your best interests at heart. That may or may not be your parents, but your significant other, closest friend, law school dean of students (even if you didn’t know him or her well as a student), or law school career services person can all help. Ask for their support, but ask them not to share your news until you’ve had time to process it, because if you have a job lined up, you don’t want the employer hearing the news from someone else.
Next, it’s important for you to tell the people you must tell. That is actually a pretty small universe. If you have a job lined up, you need to tell them. Give yourself a day or two to process, but don’t delay more than a week – the worry about having to have the conversation will just stress you out, and since you’re going to have it anyway, you might as well not add that unnecessary pressure.
Be honest and direct, and consider practicing the conversation with someone in your law school career services office. This is not a message to leave in a voice mail, and you shouldn’t expect the employer to immediately be able to tell you next steps. An incoming attorney not passing on the first try is certainly not uncommon, but the employer still may need to figure things out. That’s why it’s important that you not have this conversation when you’re in shock or upset. You want to be calm, professional, and reiterate (presuming it’s true) your desire to join the firm or organization, even in a non-lawyer capacity if that’s an option until you retake the bar.
For the people who aren’t close to you but who ask/find out anyway, decide your message. Practice it in the mirror. For example, for the family you only see at Thanksgiving or nosy people who will undoubtedly ask, it might be best to say “It turns out my exams did not earn high enough scores to pass the bar exam yet, so I’ll be taking it again in February.” That’s not untrue, but it is a very different message than “I failed the bar.” The difference can shape how others see the situation and, more importantly, how you see it.
If people press about how you’re feeling (“You must be crushed!”), don’t feel obligated to share more than you want. A simple “I’m disappointed, but focused on beginning my career and passing next time,” is more than fine.
Now take a breath. By now you’re a couple of days into knowing the results, and guess what? The sky didn’t fall in. You are not suddenly destitute. You’ve had some hard conversations, and are starting to process. This is a good time for a break – work out, read a funny book, or watch a movie unrelated to law.
When you’re ready, analyze what went wrong. Was it the essays? The multiple-choice? A specific topic or multiple sections below where they needed to be? Did you not score high enough because you have test anxiety? The universe has just sent a clear signal that it’s time to tackle that, once and for all. Did you not follow the game plan your bar prep company laid out? (No one really gets 100% of the questions and practice exams done. But students who do not pass on the first try do tend to have completed fewer practice exams and questions.) Contact your bar prep company and ask for a rep to look at where you missed points, and to talk with you about how your preparation could be different next time. (Remember, they want you to pass, so ask for help.)
As you think about how to pass the bar next time, take time for self-care. Sheryl Sandberg’s superb book Option B is useful for anyone going through a difficult time; its discussion of psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on the three P’s you need to overcome to process hard times is especially relevant. The first P is personalization – the view that this is your fault. Are there things you could have /should have/would have done differently? Of course. But that’s the same for every other bar taker. And not passing is not a reflection of your worth as a person, or even a lawyer.
The second P is pervasiveness – the view that this one event is going to change your entire life. It will not – this is one feedback point about your past performance on one test, not a statement about your entire legal career or life. The final P, permanence, is the belief that the aftershocks will last forever. They will not; this is a temporary setback.
There’s so much more to say on this topic. But hopefully, should you need them, you have a better idea of the steps to take if you get that news no law school graduate wants. And remember that there are real life resources available if you’re feeling anxious or depressed about your results, including your local Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
It doesn’t seem like it in this moment, but bouncing back from the setback of not passing the bar will leave you stronger and with greater resiliency. Unlike being able to explain the Rule Against Perpetuities, that resiliency is going to help you long after the next crop of law school alumni begin this ritual. Chin up, and go easy on yourself. Your legal career will be a long one, and will be waiting for you in a few months.
Amy M. Gardner is a former Big Law associate, mid-size firm partner, and University of Chicago Law School Dean of Students. She is a Certified Professional Coach and works with lawyers and other professionals to move beyond tolerating their current lives and careers, determine where they want to go, and to develop the skills they need to get there.