3 Options If You Failed the Bar

It’s that time of the year again … Bar results are finally out.

What’s the over/under on how many people SAY they’re not going to immediately check their results (“I’m gonna enjoy the weekend and wait for the mail”) but can’t resist when presented with the ultimate choice?

My bet is that you know your result by now.

If you passed the bar –

Congratulations! Bask in your badass glory (tactfully)! February is especially notorious for low passage rates.

You beat the odds, got your black belt, and the real training begins in the “real world” that you put off since taking the LSAT. For now, be proud of yourself and enjoy a well-earned sigh of bittersweet relief.

If you failed the bar –

You are NOT alone. I don’t think that’s all that comforting, though. You still didn’t pass the bar. Damn it!

This is always a bittersweet time for me and you.

Nonetheless, I can’t sugarcoat it forever. The letdown is infectious to everyone around you. You may even have a job or loans that depended on your passing. At this point, a time machine is the only thing that will make you feel better.

Let me tell you: I know failure is fucking terrible because for some reason I haven’t stopped messing up since I was born (including falling on my head at least 4 times). It’s like I have to retry everything at least once. I grew up in Silicon Valley where the motto is to “fail fast.” How about try not to fail?

But you know what… Improvement comes from constant feedback and learning every time you struggle to solve a difficult problem. The disco mosaic of the Rubik’s Cube is still scattered. Keep turning the puzzle until it clicks for you. This is a learnable skill!


You can reframe failure as merely a result of an iteration. You tried something, and it didn’t work. You flipped a coin that didn’t land where you wanted.

Speaking of which, there was great timing with a comment from one of the FB group members a couple days ago, where I replied with this (click the image to see the whole FB thread):

And you can’t help but admire THIS person who finally passed on the 6th try:

You don’t learn anything from failure itself. It’s what you decide to do after failure has occurred. How you are going to reiterate and work around the pothole? The only semi-redeeming feature I have might be idiotic persistence (like staying in law school). Not efficient but eventually effective.

What I’m trying to say is: You have the ability to pass; it just hasn’t happened yet. Maybe life circumstances got in the way, or you need to try a different study strategy.

One of my readers is a middle-aged mother who graduated from an unranked school and took the hardest bar exam (the CA bar of course, debate me New Yorkers). She passed the 2015 Feb exam, on her second try (using strategies I’ll share in the coming weeks). That’s why I believe anyone who has graduated law school has the ability to pass.

At least now that you have had firsthand experience, you can move forward and leave the first timers in the dust in July (if you choose to retake). The earlier you restart, the better your chances. If you stay stagnant in the pothole, others will drive over you.

Does this sound like empty platitudes? Are you frustrated at how many times you attempted the bar already? I don’t claim to have the silver bullet. People will be eager to suggest: Be better prepared, learn more, ask what happened, try different ways, figure it out, keep going.

Who knows. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but you now face certain options as I’ll discuss below. Let’s start to take baby steps from there.

And although gusto is good, try not to freak out and jump into study because (1) an emotional burst of motivation will be unsustainable, and (2) you must change your study approach if it didn’t work before.

No need to glorify failure. As you’ll see below, I’m only using it as a way to develop rapport with you and hopefully you’ll trust me blindly (jk).

Instead, let’s slow down and methodically figure out what to do next. I’m sorry to say there won’t be any woo-woo mind visualizations to make you feel better here. If you need to have a pity party, I encourage you to take as much time as you need, as long as you leave it behind afterward.

If you’re ready for actionable baby steps to get out of the pothole, consider these three choices:

1.         Sign up for the next bar and seek guidance (either order)

There’s a saying: “Don’t be the smartest person in the room.”
Or: “Stand next to the smartest person in the room.”
Or: “Stand on the shoulders of giants.”

If you’re not familiar with the lore, I failed the CA bar the first time in 2013—“the applicant was not successful on the examination.” It felt like I was sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the incredible pressure of raw reality closing around and crushing me to the core. What did I do on that fateful day?

  • Lied down on my bed.
  • Got up. The comfort of the bed had absorbed my shock and become the first shoulder I leaned on.
  • Emailed a professor I knew from school and a regional director I knew at the prep program for help.

Don’t be a lone wolf trying to take down a mammoth. Every endeavor needs the support of others to break past its limit. You don’t see big companies being run by the CEO alone.

Batman had Robin. Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak. Mark Zuckerberg stepped all over his friends to make a website for stalking friends (something like that, I’ve only seen the trailer for The Social Network).

Speaking of which, you have others going through the same thing. Join the MTYLT Facebook group to ask questions and receive moral support.

You have me. Hit reply and ask me about the bar or tell me about your love life, whatever. Or ask your tutor, anyone.

Click here for 10 ideas of where to seek help. In any case, don’t just ask questions just for the sake of venting. Importantly, follow up on the help you ask for if you found their thoughts useful. Even better if you report back to your mentor (virtual or otherwise) with results you got.

If you are in the Option 1 camp, look forward to a multipart blog and email series on how to improve your studies: my four fundamental “commandments” for success on the bar exam. You may not be ready for them, but if you sign up to your right, they’ll be available in your inbox for when you are. And you’ll read it all. Why? Because we care.

Reprinted without permission

Lastly, if you’re gonna sign up for the bar, do it sooner than later because capacity is limited for popular test centers.

2.         Take a break

So you decided this was going to be your final attempt before trying something else. Great, if you’ve accepted that retaking the bar immediately is not your priority for now, maybe you will reattempt it later (maybe the two-day bar?). Maybe you won’t. Maybe you haven’t decided.

I’ll still be around when you’re ready. In the meantime, there are other ways to productively use your time:

– Pursue a JD-preferred position

Being a lawyer is about solving problems. Businesses (including colleges) have problems they need to solve. You don’t need to necessarily pass the bar to solve those problems. Law firms tend to shy away from unbarred lawyers unless they’re still in school, but companies may not. Who knows, I don’t have the exact statistics.

Ideally, you’d align your experience and area of interest with their need. You can freelance for them, or take a part-time position. One weird trick: Before you start randomly applying to positions, get in touch with employers who previously at least offered you an interview, to see if they need help. They already showed interest in you.

I was able to get part-time gigs at both a firm (after second-time passage) and a company (before first-time result)—albeit for $20 and $15 an hour, respectively, with no benefits. Am I weird if I was extremely jealous of other people who get sweet bennies like 401(k) accounts and free daily lunches?

At the least, this will likely add to your legal experience. Your JD may even be a foot in the door to a career that doesn’t require bar passage.

– Try another field

You don’t even need to stay in law. You could “window shop” for other disciplines altogether. Since you’ve probably honed your networking skill, you could take people out to coffee to learn more about other fields that interest you.

Don’t underestimate the power of serendipity. The more cards you have, the more of them you can play. If trying to follow the “optimal” path got you here, perhaps try going with the flow. I wouldn’t even be talking to you like this if I followed “the plan.”

I know at least three people who have done either of the above ways as they waited for results or took a vacation from the bar before returning.

– Decide once you’ve sufficiently dabbled

You may have gone to law school as an extension of what you’ve been doing since undergrad—procrastinating on real-world contribution to the economy. It may finally be time to figure it out. If failing the bar gave you the impetus to finally clarify what you really want to do, you can now make a better-informed decision.

This decision may take you to Option 1 above or…

3.         Give up

This is not the most conventional, feel-good option, but it might save you headaches in the long run.

I personally don’t know anyone who actually LOVES their job as a lawyer. Chances are you didn’t go to law school because it has been your ~passion~ and you still have that drive.

Even if you desired to become a lawyer to fight an injustice you experienced, do you believe it’s something you enjoy or will be good at? Sure maybe, I have no idea what your story is. You know yourself best.

But see if you resonate with the commenters here: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/what_was_the_first_moment_you_knew_you_wanted_to_be_a_lawyer

And people who regret going to law school:

And actual lawyers who leave the profession: http://legalcareers.about.com/od/legalcareerbasics/fl/Why-Do-So-Many-Lawyers-Leave-the-Profession.htm

With debt saddling you and billing quotas and golden handcuffs strangling you, there will be days when you will regret being born. There are plenty of alternative careers or new things you can learn. Lawyering is also about learning new things, right?

In fact, I know a fellow alum who passed the bar and still gave up the law right afterward! She found her calling at a previous internship and now writes and designs instead. When she told me, I wholeheartedly approved of her decision and the self-honesty and courage that was needed to decidedly cut her losses.

Another alum practiced law for a couple years and then quit to do what he liked to do.

I know. You don’t want to be a quitter and let your family down. You have loans to pay back. You don’t want to lose your source of “prestige” (which only your parents and other lawyers care about btw). I get it because I have the same thoughts. Just know you can ring the bell and bow out at any time, even if it’s not right now.

Perhaps like me, you have one foot pointing out the door already. If so, check out www.leavelawbehind.com for inspiration and reference (in case you actually decide to leave the law). Casey Berman, a fellow alumnus and someone I look up to, muses about what it means to leave the law. I’ve been following him since 2L year. If you end up talking with him, let him know I sent you, and he should treat you extra nicely.

Did you know ⁂ is a symbol for section break? Call me a nerd, but that’s pretty amazing.

To recapitulate, here are three paths you can take from here:
1. Sign up for the next bar and seek guidance (in either order)
2. Take a break
3. Give up
Bonus. See if my Buzzfeed article “Phases of Your Psychological State After Failing the Bar Exam” makes you crack a smile :)

I hope this helped guide your next step. Whichever option you choose, I hope you can find it in you not to stay stagnant and sit in a puddle of your own tears.

What will you do? Leave a comment and tell me your story.


Share This

One Reply to “3 Options If You Failed the Bar”

  1. Brian

    Thanks for the shout out! A very helpful structure and guidance for what is a stressful time in our lives.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.