fail bar exam

Failed the Bar Exam, Now What?

By Aaron Oustrich
Updated: April 3, 2020

This is perhaps the only blog post I will write that I hope no one has to read. Anyone who has endured the rigors of undergraduate education and overcome the torment of law school honestly deserves to pass the bar exam. Whether you have failed or fear to fail the bar exam, you have surely “done your time.” However, the statistics show that failure is a potential outcome, and so we must prepare ourselves for that undesired outcome.

Note: If you have not yet taken the exam, and still have time to prepare, check out some tips and tricks to hack your mind (and the bar exam).

“The Grief That Must Have Way”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of my favorite poets. Throughout his life, like each of us, he was no stranger to adversity. I want to quote some of his words from a poem entitled “Resignation.”

And though at times impetuous with emotion

 And anguish long suppressed,

The swelling heart heaves moaning like the ocean,

 That cannot be at rest,–

We will be patient, and assuage the feeling

 We may not wholly stay;

By silence sanctifying, not concealing,

 The grief that must have way.

If you have failed the bar exam, you know pain. This test is the culmination of your almost 20 years of formal education, the sum total of all the energy drinks or caffeine shots you have consumed to keep going, and the highest hopes of your loftiest dreams. And failing it might mean feeling like you’ve just dumped all of that in a food processor. I can’t describe your pain, but you know it intimately.

Really, the only advice I can give on this subject comes from an Arendellean Queen: “Let it go.” It is okay to scream and shout and cry and crumble into the fetal position. Some of you might want to throw your books off a bridge, and if that helps you feel better, do it (just don’t commit a tort or crime in the process). Longfellow says that grief must have way, so let it have its way. The faster you can get through the grief process, the better. Once you’re through with it, you can look to the “physics of failure” to start seeing the silver lining of your most dismal day.

p = mv

When we experience pain or discomfort, our “fight or flight” response kicks in, and we want to escape. Part of letting our grief “have way” means that we want to take a break from lawyer things. I don’t know about you, but my response would be to avoid the UBE and MBE and all of those other acronyms for a long time, but David Goggins is a great example of how to quickly respond to failure.

After training to break the world record of 4,021 pull-ups in a 24-hour period, Goggins, a former Navy Seal and Army Ranger, failed miserably and very publicly. Sixty-one days after his ignominious performance came attempt number #2 (which was another failure). Fifty-four days later (115 days after attempt #1), Goggins finally broke the record.

Now, if you remember anything from high school physics, you might be wondering, “What does a Newtonian formula have to do with a world record for pull-ups?” The biggest victory David Goggins had in all of his defeats was that he very quickly shifted his focus from the grief to the next attempt. He didn’t take much time off and saved all of his progress toward the goal from disappearing.

Momentum (p) is equal to mass (m) times velocity (v). If, for example, the number of weeks you have been preparing is substituted for mass and the total hours studied is substituted for velocity, it is easy to see how taking a long break from studying can be detrimental to the momentum you have that will ultimately help you succeed. For the purposes of the table below, let’s say that for every week you take a break cancels out a week of studying (Is this true? No idea, but you get my point). Taking just a four-week break from studying cuts your bar exam “momentum” more than in half. When you fail hard, get up fast!

bar exam prep momentum chart

After Action Review

I think the best first step to take after coping with the dreadful news—that helps keep an even increase in your momentum toward passing the bar exam—is to perform an After Action Review (AAR). The United States Military and many other highly successful military, civic, and business organizations employ this method, or others similar to it, to maintain accountability and increase productivity. In layman’s terms, writing an AAR is essentially aggressive note-taking.

Its purpose is to explain and provide detailed answers to three main questions. What happened? Why did it happen? How can it be improved? The crucial part of an AAR is its objective honesty. If you thought you were so prepared and were surprised at your result, then you need to be very honest to know how to improve quickly.

Detail your bar exam journey

What was your score? What did you need to pass? What insights can you gain from your score report? What were your best/worst sections?

Analyze why you failed the bar exam

Review your process. How much time did you spend studying your best/worst sections? Is there a correlation? Did you have enough time to prepare properly? Were you too confident with your strengths? Did you panic during the test and forget the material? Were you distracted while studying? (Did you use Crushendo?)

Explore how to improve when you retake the bar

What went well? What can you do to maintain your areas of strength? How can you study differently? How can you better control your study environment? Should you exercise more to reduce stress? Could you have a better sleep schedule to be alert when studying?

I don’t need to tell you that failure is part of life before, during, and after the exam. You know how you deal with setbacks, you know how much work you’ve put into your preparation, and after you fill out an AAR, you’ll know how to pass the next exam you take. So, when the bar exam knocks you down, pick yourself up quickly and with a new plan to crush the bar exam!

About the author

Aaron Oustrich is a student at Brigham Young University who enjoys reading, writing, learning, and thinking.