Advice for Parents of Students who Fail the Bar Exam - JD
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law school study groupAdvice for Parents of Students who Fail the Bar Exam 

If you are a parent and your child failed the bar exam, it can be hard to know what to do or what to say.  We have talked to several parents of students who fail the bar exam. We have also talked to several students about what they find (and don’t find!) helpful. Here is some time-tested advice.

Advice For Parents of Students Who Fail the Bar Exam:

It can be very stressful as a parent if your child fails the bar exam. You may not know exactly what to say or do (or you may wonder if you are saying too much or too little!). On one hand, your child is a grown adult who can ultimately figure out what is best for them. On the other hand, you want to be as supportive as possible and let them know that you are there to help them. Here is some time-tested advice for parents of students who fail the bar exam.

First, let your child be sad (and if they need it, be alone!). It is hard to let students, friends, and family members be sad or be alone. Failing the bar exam is hard to process and can be extremely devastating for students (and in turn, parents!). Not only do students feel immediately overwhelmed by the prospects of having to study for the exam again, they also usually feel disappointed, angry that they did not pass, and sometimes a mixture of jealousy and happiness for friends that did pass. It takes a while to sort out and process these feelings. Some students need a few days before they are ready to dive into Plan B – some need a week or longer. At some point, if your child is wallowing in despair, you may have to have a real conversation with them to see what needs to be done (including seeking professional help). But in the beginning, not only is it normal, it is necessary for your child to work through these emotions. Strong emotions cannot be hidden or quickly surpassed, or they will resurface. Feeling them takes time. Some students need be alone to process these feelings. Some students need to be with friends or other bar takers that failed the bar exam. Some students will want to be with their parents. But the best thing to do in the very beginning is let them know that you are there for them, that you will help them however you can, and then give them some space if they need it.

If the fact that your child failed the bar exam is stressing you out, do not talk to them about it! Instead, confide in a friend or different family member.

Second, recognize that the bar exam is a very difficult test. The wrong response to “I failed the bar exam” is “What? How could you fail?” Instead, reiterate this understanding that the bar exam is very difficult to your child. Passage rates have been falling everywhere (many states passage rates are between 40% and 60% — meaning that approximately half of the students taking the bar exam do not pass)! The bar exam requires that students complete very difficult essays in a timed setting as well as hundreds of multiple-choice questions.  This understanding of the difficulty of the exam as well as the low number of people that pass will help give you and your child perspective. Your child did not fail because they are dumb or didn’t try. (In fact there are multiple reasons why smart people fail the bar exam. You are welcome to read our article that was published in the National Jurist about seven reasons smart people fail the bar exam and pass along to your child if they blame themselves!)

Third, if your child feels extremely discouraged, remind them that the hard part is over. The LSAT, getting into law school, and completing three years of law school is the hard and long part! Of course the bar exam is difficult, but it is the last step in a very long journey. If they completed law school, they can conquer the bar exam. The bar exam is not three years—it is a test they can retake!  You can also point out that several smart, talented, and successful people have failed the bar exam and they didn’t let it get them down (see this list for several successful people who have failed at least bar exam).  Failing the bar exam is not something that will hold them back forever. It is something that they can surpass.

Try to figure out what went wrong. After your child processes failing the bar exam, if they are open to help, it is a good idea to try to help them figure out what went wrong. One way you can do this is analyzing the score report. Bar exams are broken down into the MBE portion (this is 200 multiple-choice questions) and the written portion (which consists of essays and sometimes “MPTs” which are tests of lawyerly skills). Your child will be receiving a score report that breaks down their score. When you receive this, you can analyze it or even call us for a free consultation to identify the areas of improvement.

Another thing you can do is ask your child to think critically about how they studied and what helped them and what didn’t. Did going to lecture help them? Did reviewing outlines? Did they memorize enough? Did they practice enough questions? I wouldn’t recommend bombarding your child with questions right away—but once things have calmed down it is not a bad idea to help them think critically about the answers to these questions and how their approach can differ the next time they take a bar exam. We recommend students make a list of reasons they may have failed the bar exam (and we have a great example in this post).

Help your child. Offer to pay for private tutoring if you think it could help them. A private tutor can provide not only academic support but also emotional support and accountability. (If you’d like to read more about our private tutoring services, please see our testimonials and read more about private tutoring here. Please also feel free to call us about your child’s situation if you are wondering what the best route is for them.) Offer them a place to stay so they can study without working. Offer them baked goods or meals. See what you can provide them financially, emotionally, or otherwise without telling them what to do.

Fifth, do not put undue pressure on your child. Your child probably feels the most pressure from themselves. They likely also feel significant social pressure to pass. While you should act (and be!) interested in their studies, don’t micromanage their day or constantly ask if they are studying enough. If they are taking a break, good! Let them take a break without quizzing them about whether they are doing enough. Some students feel so much pressure from their parents that it ends up being a source of discouragement.

Don’t encourage your child to hide the fact that they failed the bar exam. Parents of students that fail the bar exam sometimes will say “don’t tell anyone!” Most students do not want to the world anyway, but encouraging them to keep it a secret promotes both lying and shame. Instead, it is a better idea to leave it up to them to decide who to tell and who not to tell.

Don’t immediately analogize the bar exam to passing the CPA exam, the boards, or even passing the bar exam several years ago. Even if it is true that you passed a very difficult exam, and even if it is true that some of those lessons can be helpful to your child, this can be extremely hard to hear – especially right when a student learns they fail. If you want to give them time-tested advice, then please see the next piece of advice!

If you feel as though you truly have valuable guidance and advice, ask your child if you can plan a time to talk about it. Go out to coffee or schedule a time to talk and then tell them that you are giving them advice that you think is valuable and helpful and that you think they should truly consider it. Ask them how you can be a source of support for them.

Remember that ultimately, if your child is taking the bar exam, they are a grown adult who will have to make their own decision about their next step.

Lastly, even though failing the bar exam can be extremely devastating, there are actually good things that come from failing the bar exam. These are hard to see at first but many of our students tell us that they are glad they failed the bar exam before they came to us. Please read this “note to those who failed the bar exam” if you are curious as to why and to what good things can come from the bar exam.