What to Do When you Fail the Bar Exam?

24 Oct

“Help! I failed the bar! Now what?”

If I had a penny for the number of times people have asked me this, I’d probably have a whole dollar.

No seriously, there is a difficult decision facing people who don’t quite make it past the bar exam’s tough standards.  I have a very close friend who was absolutely convinced that California was the state for her. She packed up and moved lock, stock, and barrel to LA hoping to start her dream of legalizing the state one case at a time. But after 3 very expensive tries at passing the Cali bar, she’s starting to lose hope.  

So what do you do? 

I can’t promise you I have all the answers. There for a while, I was pretty convinced I wasn’t going to make it past the exam myself. But, by the grace of God, here I am – a proud Iowa attorney.  So I haven’t exactly been where you are. Note however, that I had already started looking at non-law based jobs before I even took the exam, that’s how concerned I was. So I do understand your fears.  

There are a few options available to you. Most notably ~ 1) Re-take the Exam or 2) Find a different type of Law job or 3) Go another route.

1) If you’re going try the exam again, that’s great. I wish you all the best and the truth is, practice makes perfect. The more you study, the more you practice, the better you will be on the actual exam! A lot of people take the exam and pass it on their second try.  Many Bar Review programs will actually let you take the program again for free if you failed the exam the first time, so that fee isn’t going to be over your head.  There are many people out there willing to tutor you in essay writing, in exam taking strategies, etc. You actually could probably hire a private Bar Tutor online or in your area.  There are plenty of things you can do to improve your strategy. Obviously what you did the first time was insufficient, so do more.  Try new techniques, find online support and practice groups, find new ways to learn the law. I honest-to-God learned a lot of Evidence/Criminal law by watching “Murder One”–where the people followed most of the rules of evidence/objections and I could see how the rules developed or worked. A lot of fiction books are written by lawyers, so maybe find a few that include the rules of law that you are working on.

One note of warning– you will do worse on your second exam if you don’t continue studying and reviewing in the interim. A lot of repeaters say, oh I did great on contracts, so I don’t need to study that anymore. This so wrong I can’t even tell you. Wait 6 months and try to remember all those contracts rules again, you’ll find they’ve already started fading into memory. So you really should continue reviewing EVERYTHING, not just the stuff you didn’t do so well on.

2) Finding an alternative law job is probably the most difficult option of all to accomplish.  There are however, some types of jobs available to juris doctorates–even if some require additional training. For example, you could teach law (at home or abroad). The J.D. is technically a PhD, and there are several schools who won’t care about your bar scores as long as you can teach the topic. Now, teaching in America is probably more difficult, but there are a lot of schools internationally (High-school or College) that want professors of American Law.  Or you could advertise your skills as a Consultant. This is sort of like a lawyer, except you aren’t doing any of the paper work, courtroom actions, etc. And you have to be upfront on the lack of a license. But you do have a PhD in Law (J.D.) and you are qualified to discuss the topics.  Especially if you work in an alternative field and utilize the law as a supplement–work as a business consultant with the addition of a law degree.  Paralegals are sometimes paid even more than lawyers, and that doesn’t require a law degree at all.  Try out writing–many mystery writers start out as lawyers because they get experience in how criminal law works, maybe you could try your hand at it.  You could try being an administrator. There are some organizations that want to hire people aware of the law, but don’t really care if you have a license or not. Try working as a legal researcher. A lot of lawyers and legal websites need legal research done for them–you don’t need a law license, you just need to understand the law. As you can see, there are several options available to you. I’ll try to pull together a list for you to use something in the future.  But for now, try googling around for jobs requiring a J.D.  

3) Actually, a lot of people who do pass the bar are going this route as well–finding a different path.  This happens largely for two reasons–you aren’t good at law (let’s just agree that some people are not meant for the legal industry) or you generally dislike the field (it happens!).  Law is never going to be a completely worthless degree.  Businesspersons use it to create their contracts, protect their company, build start-ups, shutdowns, and more. Accountants use it to ensure they understand the field of banking/taxation and the rules that accompany those industries. Psychologists understand how to protect themselves and their patients. Politicians–well it’s obvious how they use the law. You get my point–you can do something completely different and still utilize your J.D.  

But sometimes, the law field itself is just not going to work for you. Maybe you figure out after the 3rd or 4th try that you’re never going to get past the exam. Maybe you finally take the exam and realize that law sucks–it’s boring, takes a ton of hours out of your life, destroys families, the judges/legal systems are biased and unfair, etc.  Some people take to the world of law like ducks to water. Others of us figure out that us practicing law is like a pussycat trying to be the champion diver in a competition field consisting of sharks.  It just isn’t meant to be. 

This is where my experience comes in. I actually passed the exam. I tried the law. I HATED it. Kudos to my friends who are extremely successful, but that was not going to be me. I could have been successful, but I figured out I didn’t really want to be–at least in that field. Now, have I abandoned my legal studies? NO! I am actually a law professor, legal researcher, and writer. I focus on the areas of law that actually interest me (Art Law & Cultural Heritage Law), rather than trying to force myself into a career as a Business lawyer or Family lawyer.  I like teaching so much better–in fact, I’m getting ready to pursue a MA and PhD in English Literature, where I might be writing about Law in Literature.  

If you are failing the exam over and over again, maybe you need to stop and think about your future. Is law really for you?  Is the future you see yourself in really worth all this stress, aggravation, and money?  I can’t promise you that once you get past the exam, everything will fall into place. If you had trouble memorizing and applying the civil procedure rules before the exam, you’re still going to have to do that in real life where the judges yell at you when you screw up.  It’s not like passing the exam is a magic thing that means you’ll automatically be good at law for the rest of your life.  No, you are still going to be tested on your law knowledge every time your stuff goes before a court. 

So take a step back. Stop trying to force yourself into a bubble that you just aren’t fitting into. What is it that you actually like about law? Money? Maybe you’d be better off going back and getting an accounting, engineering, business degree. The learning? Teachers have a lot more learning time.  Argumentation/Discussion?  Writing, Politics, Teaching government, Creating government policy–all of those include persuasion and arguments. There are a lot of fields out there that will let you use your law degree while still being more successful at something you love.  Yes, this may mean going back to school–and Lord knows, you’re tire of school. But most MAs take 1-2 years and can be shockingly affordable. A PhD may require 1-2 years of classes, but the rest is just writing your dissertation. It’s not like Law school, you can work your way through these programs. And some of your law classes might even transfer!  See what I mean, you have options.  Maybe the bar exam isn’t for you.

Whatever happens, just remember you have options.  If you want to take the exam again, that’s great! Check and see what help you can get for free (the options are better now)! But if you are starting to get depressed about your future, stop it. The bar exam isn’t the end of the world–there are lots of opportunities that work just perfectly without a silly bar certificate.  This exam is only to prepare you for one job. There are lots of other jobs available to you! And some might be even better!

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