Is Failing the Bar Exam the Death Knell of a Legal Career?

What If You Fail the Bar Exam? Some Tips for Bouncing Back

Man using laptop computer in bar
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Tens of thousands of aspiring attorneys get the bad news each year that they've failed the bar exam. It might feel like it at that time, but it's not necessarily “game over” for any chance at a successful legal career.

It's entirely possible to bounce back from a bar exam failure and go on to a happy, successful legal career. But make no mistake—your next steps matter.

Take Time to Be Upset

It’s normal to feel frustrated, angry, embarrassed, and sad when you've failed the bar. It was a huge event on your horizon, requiring extensive preparation, and now it's behind you with nothing to show for it.

You have to regroup with a plan, but it’s also critical to take the time you need to process your emotional response. It might be helpful to work through your feelings with a counselor or coach to ensure that you’re mentally and emotionally ready to study again.

Be sure you’re over the initial shock before you get back on the horse. Otherwise, things aren't likely to end well, and the only thing worse than failing once is failing twice.

Ask for Help

The good thing about the bar exam is that it’s a very learnable test. Get help and expert advice about what to do differently next time if you weren’t successful in your first attempt. Failing the bar is a pretty strong signal that the approach you took didn’t work.

You might consider a tutor this time around. A built-in cheering squad can keep you upbeat and driven, and a tutor can provide a fresh pair of eyes, zeroing in on mistakes you made the first time that you might not realize on your own.

It can be hard to admit the thousands of dollars you spent on a bar review course didn’t lead to the result you wanted, but that’s the reality. Retaking the same course won’t get that money back. Instead, seek and act on advice from people who can help you analyze why your bar prep wasn’t effective.

Changing your preparation approach might be the only reliable way to change the result.

Go Back to School

No, not literally, but you probably have numerous resources at your law school who can help you get over this hump. Reach out for advice in evaluating your results and devising a new strategy. Some law schools offer dedicated courses and resources for assisting with a student's second try.

Keep in mind that your school wants you to pass the bar, too, for its own reasons and reputation. You can pretty much count on some form of assistance from this quarter.

Make Some Life Adjustments If Necessary

It’s relatively unlikely that you’ll be fired after one bar failure if you already have a law job, although it’s not out of the question. Now's the time to become the most reliable, hardest working employee in your office. Demonstrate your dedication.

It’s even more critical to pass the next time if you don't currently have a law job because you’re highly unlikely to get a job offer until you’re admitted.

On the other hand, you might want to consider taking time off if you're working—but talk to your boss early. Give yourself the time necessary to ensure that you’re as prepared for the next bar exam as possible. It’s a lot to balance, but there’s a lot on the line.

Otherwise, create an ironclad work/study schedule and stick to it no matter what if not working isn't possible given your financial situation. This isn't the time to worry about your social life or lack thereof.

Don’t Blow the Roadblock out of Proportion

Yes, failing the bar exam is a big deal. No, it’s not the end of the world. And the good news is that no one cares about the details after you pass.

Lots of successful attorneys have had trouble with the bar exam, so you’re in good company. In fact, the list of well-known names that had to give the exam a second or third try is pretty impressive: Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to name just a few.

Failing the bar says nothing about your ultimate fitness for the legal profession.