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Bar exam passage & failure: a thread.

I’m swallowing hard, because I’ve shared this with few people before. If you didn’t pass, I hope it will help & encourage you to hear about my experience.

How well I remember the feeling of failing the North Carolina bar on my first try. This would have been autumn 2004. I sat on the floor of my apartment in Chapel Hill and cried. My best friend came over and made a pot of tea. She sat on the floor and drank it with me. A couple of other friends came too, and they waited quietly in my living room while I closed the door and called my parents from my bedroom to break the news.

The next morning, I had to tell the appellate judge for whom I was clerking. Then I had to tell the law professor for whom I had worked all through law school, who was a close friend and mentor. These were all people I loved, admired, and respected, who believed in me; and I felt I had let them all down. It was excruciating and humiliating. Then the stress of studying began again—this time under an extra cloud of dread and pressure, while also working a demanding full-time job with a long commute.

I’m not going to lie, it was awful. I was so tired. I was disappointed, frightened, discouraged, and mortified. I was jealous of the people I knew who did pass the first time. It was the first time in my life when I viscerally realized that nothing was guaranteed to work out for me or go my way. A simple lesson in theory, but it was so difficult for me to learn to live with that knowledge in daily life, and keep putting one foot in front of the other despite it.

For that reason, it is no exaggeration to say that failing the bar exam completely changed me as a person. Seventeen years later, I can see how that change was ENTIRELY for the better. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a lot of other tragedies, screw-ups, failures, and humiliations ahead of me, some of them much worse. Fellow bar exam non-succeeders: so do you. But now, in this crushing moment, I’m here to tell you that I was 1000% better prepared for those future vagaries of life b/c I failed the bar exam in 2004. And you will be, too. That’s the first and most important thing I want you to remember in this dark moment. You will be BETTER for this. You will be a better lawyer and a better person. Better, I dare to suggest, than if you had passed on your first try. I know I am, for one.

One other thing you should try to remember:
this is a season of life, not your whole life. I studied hard, passed that sucker on my second try and 4 years later I passed California on my first try. I moved around the state and the country, I worked for some judges, I’ve worked at a couple law firms now. If one thing has helped me in my career more than anything, it is the quality of grit. Showing up every day and working hard, both when you feel like it and when you don’t.

Having to re-take the bar gave me grit, persistence, toughness, and resilience. Those are precious gifts. I wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen to acquire them that way, but I value them now nonetheless.

I have plenty of other opinions on the worth of the bar exam (if any … meh) which I’ll save for another time. In conclusion, though, I just want to say now, if you didn’t pass the test this fall, you have my sympathy and you are in my thoughts. I hope it helps you a little bit to know I’ve been in those shoes too and not only survived, but thrived. Keep your chin up and keep trying. You can do this.

  • God gives us trials for a reason. It's good, especially, for high-powered people to suffer an embarassing failure to diminish our pride--- and make us less afraid of failure.

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;"