Hand holding a pencil to paper
Hand holding a pencil to paper

You Failed the Bar Exam, Now What? 

By Fidel A. Calero, Esq., Managing Director, Bar Review Engagement, Helix Bar Review

Failing the bar exam can feel like a devastating blow. Depression, anxiety, doubt, and a sense of loss are all common emotions for the over 20,000 applicants who do not pass the bar each year. But do you know what else is common? Each fall and spring, when bar results are released, those who learned they did not pass dust themselves off, try again, and succeed on their next attempt! And you can write the same ending to your bar exam story. So, take a minute to look in the mirror and come to terms with your path to licensure – that not passing this time is OK and you will be OK. Then, you can begin to develop your retake plan.

What is a retake plan? As a repeat taker, you won’t be studying under the same conditions as the first time around. So, you don’t want to take the same approach to bar prep. You may need to work more, you will feel new pressures, and you will approach your bar course differently. So, reflect on your experience and your current circumstances and then create a purposeful plan for the next phase of bar prep.

Consider your options. Before you dive into your retake plan, consider whether you even need one. If you sat for the Uniform Bar Exam, you may have earned a high enough score to pass in another jurisdiction. And, if you don’t have anything tying you to the state where you’re currently living (or if you plan to practice in federal court, where you just need to be licensed in a state), it might make sense to transfer your score so you can practice law in another jurisdiction. If you earned a passing score on one half of the exam, some jurisdictions allow you to retake only the half of the exam that you failed. You also may not be ready to retake the exam right away. Depending upon your circumstances, it may be best to wait until the following administration. Weigh all your options and make the best decision for you.

Consider your strengths and weaknesses. Everyone retaking the bar exam has one major check in the “strengths” column – you’ve done it before! Fear of the unknown is a huge contributor to anxiety for first-time takers. Now, you know what to expect – and you can use that knowledge to plan your time more efficiently. You should also try to obtain as much information as possible about your performance on the exam – your score breakdown on the MBE, how many points you received on each essay and/or performance test, etc. If your jurisdiction charges a fee for this information – pay it. It’s invaluable insight into how well you prepared the last time around, so you can determine where you need to adjust your approach (and where you don’t) this time.

Find your support team. Like they say, no person is an island, and you’re going to need the support of friends, family, and the legal community to pass this hurdle. For many, it can be harder to assemble a coalition when repeating the bar exam because those who supported you the first time are ready to have your relationship back to normal. Before you can make your pitch to friends and family to ask for their continued patience and support, you need to be the captain of your own team. Don’t be afraid to speak to a mental health professional to help you through this process as well. And reach out to the academic or bar support professionals at your law school. Bar prep is their job, and they have tons of experience helping grads in your same position. So, use them as a resource!

Adjust your budget, if necessary. Failing the bar exam will often have a ripple effect on your bottom line, so strategically organizing your finances for the next few months should be at the forefront of your plan. Hopefully, you used a bar preparation course for your first try. If so, read the fine print to determine if you qualify for a free repeat of the program. If you don’t, or if you weren’t happy with the course you used the first time around, you will have to budget for another bar prep course in addition to all your other expenses. (If you’re looking for a flexible, high quality bar prep program that’s priced at cost with opportunities for one-on-one support with attorney directors, check out Helix Bar Review.) Use this worksheet on Ask EDNA! – the Education Network at AccessLex to plan for the months leading up to the next bar exam – and don’t forget the period between the exam and the release of bar results. (Create your free Ask EDNA! account today to access helpful resources and tools to support your bar prep experience.)

Conduct a study strategy autopsy and come up with a plan of action! There are a lot of reasons why smart people fail the bar exam. The key to making sure that it doesn’t happen again is to pinpoint the reasons that were applicable to you. You must be extremely honest with yourself and try to be as specific as possible. Check out this study from AccessLex Institute and Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) to see the most common predictors of first-time bar failure and ask yourself whether you fall into any of these categories. Figure out what you need to do differently this time and tap into your support team (friends, family, professors, academic support staff, colleagues, bar coaches) to create a retake plan that will get you across the finish line.

Most importantly, remember that you’ve got this! Even if you fell short of the mark last time, the ultimate bar passage rate (percentage of graduates who pass within 2 years) is over 90%! So, you will achieve your dream of becoming an attorney. With a little planning and preparation and a lot of hard, purposeful work, you’ll be practicing law in no time!