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Second time’s a charm: A day in the life of a bar exam failer

Second Time Around

For years, I’ve worked with what you might call a secret society. It’s a society that law schools, and many others, often pretend doesn’t exist. Indeed, it’s a society that most of us wish did not exist. That’s because this is the society of bar failers – made up of folks who have failed a bar exam.

Whether you recently failed and are preparing to take the bar again, the bar is but a distant worry for the future, or you already passed – you should take a moment to understand what it’s like to be a member of this society. If you end up joining, getting perspective now will make things easier on you. But even if you don’t need this information for yourself, you can use it to help those in your life who do. Because if you don’t already know someone who failed the bar, you will. So let me offer a couple thoughts from my time with these folks.

First, understand that if you are a passer, it does not mean that you are a good lawyer and failers are not. It’s just that some people can pass the bar exam easier than others. Whether it’s dumb luck or they are just a good test taker, some people pass by going through the motions. They read through some outlines, watch the bar lectures – and pass.

But for others, it’s not that easy. I have worked with people who failed eight times (or more). And let me tell you, by round eight, you are not messing around. These folks study harder, longer, and fiercer than most passers. This is not a matter of a small group of lazy kids who never should have come to law school; it’s a matter of dedicated and capable folks who will be phenomenal lawyers once they get through this struggle. So be compassionate. If you are lucky enough to be a passer, know that it could easily have gone the other way.

Second, if you are a first-time passer, you can’t understand what failing a bar exam is like. Don’t pretend you can. For failers, the bar exam was not just a couple of months; the bar exam was years. No longer do failers identify themselves as law students or lawyers. They watch as their friends move on with their lives, starting clerkships or jobs at firms, while for them life stands still. There is no job; there is no validation of the sacrifices they made. I’ve known failers who lost their spouses, their jobs, and their own self-worth because of this exam. I’ve worked with well over a hundred failers, and even I can’t tell you what it’s like to fail (because I was a passer, and we passers don’t really know). We need to have more respect for the toll failing a bar has on real lives. This is not just getting a bad grade. These people need our support.

Third, failing the bar is like contracting a horrible flu. It feels like the world is ending, but it’s not as big deal as it seems at the moment. Out of the hundreds of failers I’ve known, I have never met one who stuck with it and never passed. If you want to pass, you will.

That raises my most important point: although everyone has it in them to pass, putting in the time is not enough. I have a single public service announcement for anyone taking a bar exam: To be sure you will pass, you must take responsibility for your preparation. You can’t sign up for a commercial bar-prep service and rest easy. It may surprise you to know that most failers took a commercial prep course. They are great resources, but they aren’t enough.

How do you take control of your bar prep? It’s simple really. In helping people pass after failing a bar exam, I’ve discovered several easy strategies that raise scores. I will go into more depth in future posts, but here are three of the best takeaways.

Frequently test yourself to see how many rules you can remember from each subject—without any crutches!

You will not have flashcards or outlines come test day; you need to recall all the big rules from scratch. Testing yourself regularly without aids is also crucial because it will tell you when you are prepared for a subject so that you can shift your focus to other subjects. Bottom line: Until you can cold recall about 80% of the major rules in each subject, you are not ready to take a bar.

Create your own detailed schedule; don’t rely on the commercial bar services – and start practicing essays and MBE questions early and often.

People usually fail the bar because they aren’t good at taking the test. Either they don’t know how to quickly break down an essay, or they get tricked by the MBE. There are some great resources out there to help you work on both of these skills, but there is no replacement for practicing on the real thing. And make sure you practice under timed conditions: that’s the only way to make sure you won’t freeze up on the real test.

Have a defined, step-by-step process for answering essays and attacking MBE questions.

New research tells us that having a defined process for answering test questions makes you more efficient and will significantly reduce your test anxiety. There are many test-taking processes out there. What’s important is that you pick one and stick to it so that, come test day, you don’t second guess yourself.

I am always happy to chat bar exams, law school exams, or legal writing. Feel free to email me at

Joe Regalia Joe Regalia clerked for several years in federal district courts and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. These days he keeps his plate full as an adjunct law professor, an associate at the firm of Sidley Austin, and a frequent speaker and consultant on legal writing and legal test-taking.

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