failed bar exam

I Failed the Bar Exam,
Now What?

By Adam Balinski
Updated: November 17, 2021

Nearly 4,000 bar applicants had a no good, very bad weekend after the California bar exam results came out Friday. Almost 8,000 bar applicants took the California bar exam; 47% failed.

Over the years, I have come to love and hate when bar results get released. As the owner of a bar prep company, I hear both good news and bad news from our students. I invest myself emotionally in many of our students, so when they fail the bar exam, I share in the disappointment.

It’s better to face and defeat your inner demons than ignore them and allow them to perpetually pester you. It’s better to experience life with the same kind of candor toward self as good attorneys give their clients. That means difficult and important conversations.

The point of this article is to help those who just had the metaphorical carpet pulled out from underneath them get back up, dust themselves off, see a clearer vision of both the past and the way forward, and press onward and upward with faith.

If you passed the bar exam, that’s wonderful. This article is not for you but you may know someone you could help by sharing this with them.

If you failed the bar exam, buckle up. Some of what I am about to say may be hard to hear and some of what I am about to ask you may be hard to do. But remember, great things rarely come easily. It’s better to face and defeat your inner demons than ignore them and allow them to perpetually pester you. It’s better to experience life with the same kind of candor toward self as good attorneys give their clients. That means difficult and important conversations.

This first part may sound weird but it’s important

The first thing I want you to do is a little experiment. Time yourself for two minutes, look in the mirror and spout out your greatest frustrations and fears. You may say stuff like the following:

I can’t believe I failed.

How could I fail?

All my friends passed—I must be an idiot.

I have let down my family and friends.

I spent so much time and money preparing.

I don’t know if I will ever pass the bar exam.

I don’t know if I even want to try anymore.

This is the most humiliating and difficult news I have received recently.

I am a mess.

I need help.

I feel lost.

Etc. You get the idea. Just be brutally honest with yourself.

When your two minutes is up, take a deep breath and come back to this. Now go!

Regrouping after letting off some steam

Well, if you did that, you very likely got out some tears and may still be crying some. That’s understandable. Maybe you raised your voice a bit. That’s understandable too. As humans, emotions can be huge and the bigger they are the more we shouldn’t pretend them away. Unspoken hurt has a way of festering and creating broken records of negativity in our minds.

In my experience, it better to quickly and fully acknowledge hurt and move on than to wallow in silent despair indefinitely. Once we acknowledge the pain, we can begin to put the pain in the past.

You spoke your pain. You heard yourself out. Now, it’s time to move forward. It’s time to say goodbye to your demons and be positive.

Forget the bar exam and remember all the good stuff for three days

The next thing I recommend is to take three days to try to enjoy and reflect on the good things in your life. This is to help you regain a big picture perspective. The world is not the bar exam and your life is not summed up by the passing or failing of it. Count your blessings, as they say.

Sometimes it can be hard to remember. If you are really struggling. Imagine the smiling faces of your friends and family—those you love in your life and who bring you joy. Spend time with the people you love and rejoice in those relationships. Do your people still love you even though you failed? Of course they do! And they can help you relearn, if necessary, how to love yourself. Just follow their examples. And if you have to, ask them what they like about you. I am confident there is much to like.

Spending a week weighing options and figuring out what you really want

When the three days of rest from any bar exam cares is up, the next thing to do is to spend a week reflecting about your options and figuring out what you really want and why.

Sometimes failing the bar exam is a brick wall blessing in disguise. It can be a hard stop in a path some may have defaulted themselves into. It can help some to realize that their heart really isn’t in becoming an attorney and their time is better invested elsewhere.

Other times, it can help folks see how much they really want to be an attorney and give them the extra motivation to face the Goliath of bar preparation again. Maybe being a lawyer is how they think they can make the most difference in the world. Or maybe they think it is the best path for their family to get out of poverty.

Whatever path your honest introspection puts you on, you must find a good why, an empowering force to guide your choice. Find a why that liberates and makes you smile. Don’t settle for a why that shackles. For example, some shackle themselves to failure because their why is avoiding difficulty and inconvenience. Avoiding hard work is a terrible reason to give up on the bar exam and becoming an attorney. Likewise, social pressures can be shackling too. Don’t feel trapped into having to take the bar exam again or having to be an attorney. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Find a real, powerful why. Whatever your path, pursue it with passion. Don’t drag your feet. Don’t walk haphazardly.

Take meaningful ownership of what comes next for you.

So, you still really want to be an attorney

If you find yourself on the bar exam retaker path, the next thing to do is inventory what went well and what went poorly during your last attempt. Focus on the things within your control. Don’t distract yourself by dwelling on things beyond your control.

For example, figure out how many practice questions you did of each type and for each subject. Get a breakdown from your state bar of your score. Do you see any correlations between quantity of practice and quality of performance?

Overall, how many practice questions did you do? Sometimes, I’m shocked to learn that some students did very few essays or performance tests or only a few hundred multiple choice questions. There is a good reason why most bar prep courses offer thousands of questions. Frankly, sometimes I tell people, “Look, for how little practice you did, your score is not actually that bad.”

Were there parts of the exam you were afraid of and actually avoided preparing for? Sometimes students do that. Though natural, it is the opposite of what you should do. You want to spend more time on the stuff you struggle with, not less.

Another thing to reflect on is the quality of your practice. Did you take the time to figure out where you went wrong on each MBE question? Did you thoughtfully review essay and performance test answer analysis sheets or sample or model answers?

When you read outlines, listened to lectures or other audio, did you actively try to understand and remember each principle? Were you fully engaged in your mind with the material or were you more passive minded or distracted?

Have you mastered fundamental skills like typing speed and writing structure?

Also, consider your time management. Did you waste time on social media, video streaming, or video games? Maybe you should consider taking a break from such distractions during your next preparation period. Are there apps or games you should delete from your phone and computer?

Did you follow monthly, weekly, and daily study plans that were crafted to give you an appropriate diet of each subject and component?

Were there corners that you unintentionally or intentionally cut? Did you rely on essay subject predictions and neglect certain subject areas?

Did you get in a good schedule and rhythm each day? Did you get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly?

If exam anxiety is a stumbling block, how can you better develop your coping techniques? Would it be worthwhile to practice more meditation or other relaxation exercises?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of helpful questions but it should get you working down the right path of self-evaluation. I have never met anyone who passed or failed the bar exam and prepared perfectly. There’s always room to improve your quantity and quality of preparation.

Make a plan and hold yourself accountable

Once you have a clear view of what you did last time, you can make a plan for what to change and what to keep doing. Find a loved one and share your plan and ask them to help keep you accountable. Report to your friend often about how things are going.

Reflect each day and each week on what you’ve accomplished and adjust plans as necessary. Consider keeping a journal where you record your efforts and progress.

I believe you can pass the bar exam and I believe that more strongly if you believe that too. It’s not about working smarter and not harder. It’s about working smarter and harder. You’ll get it. Hang in there. Onward and upward!

Reach out

If you want to use me as a sounding board for your specific situation, feel free to shoot me an email: adam@crushendo. If you’re looking for new study aids to help you in your journey, check out the Crushendo shop.

About the author

Adam Balinski is a former TV reporter turned attorney entrepreneur. He founded Crushendo after graduating summa cum laude from BYU Law and scoring in the top 5% nationally on the Uniform Bar Exam. Adam is currently writing a book called, “The Law School Cheat Code: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know About Crushing Law School.”

Related articles