Do Big Law Associates Fail The Bar Exam?
Big law associates typically did very well academically in law school and succeeded in their summer associate positions and other extracurriculars, leading them to a full-time job offer at some of the nation’s largest firms. Because these associates meet so many academic and professional benchmarks, many wonder: do big law associates fail the bar exam? The short answer: it’s not very common, but it does happen. In this post, we discuss what happens when big law associates fail the bar exam, how to help prevent failure, and what steps to take if you are a big law associate who has not passed the bar exam.
Do Big Law Associates Fail The Bar Exam?
Big law associates did well in school and therefore are usually the last people you would expect to fail at anything (including the bar exam). However, smart, intelligent, and capable people fail the bar exam each administration. The fact that big law associates can (and do) fail the bar sometimes is sometimes made to appear highly unlikely because big law firms do not like to discuss it. Firms almost always mention “how rare it is” or “how little it happens.” However, it does happen, and there are a few different common culprits as to why.
Why Do Big Law Associates Fail the Bar?
Typically, common themes present when big law associates fail the bar. We’re highlighting some of them below!
1. They do not dedicate enough time to learning and memorizing during bar prep.
Law students take many (or all) of the subjects tested on the bar exam. Getting an “A” in a course can create a false sense of security when it comes to studying for those subjects for the bar exam. It can be easy to think, “I got an ‘A’ in contracts, so I will barely need to study – I already learned it!” Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can lead to a failing score.
While it is true that taking a class before the bar makes it is easier to study come bar exam time, it does not mean that subjects should be skimmed or even skipped altogether. Doing well in a class simply means you are not starting from scratch when studying for the bar. It is not a replacement for putting in the work to fully learn and memorize the concepts tested on the bar.
During bar prep, you learn highly tested issues for a particular subject as well as how those issues appear on the bar. You may have studied some of these concepts during class, but your professor may have glossed over others. Over time, your familiarness with the material may have waned (after all, your 1L year was years ago, now!). However, many big law associates are lured into a false sense of security by their law school course successes, and fail to put in the proper time during bar prep to take their baseline knowledge to the next level – which is necessary to adequately prepare for the bar.
A critical step to passing the bar exam though is to memorize your bar exam outlines adequately. Memorizing material without understanding it will not be very useful, so before you memorize, you need to learn the material (check out this post on how to find out what your bar exam learning style is!). And, once you have learned the concepts and memorized them, you have to put that knowledge into practice with practice questions (check out this post on how to take bar exam practice tests!).
2. They run out of time on the exam.
Timing on the bar exam is related to the point above on dedicating enough time to studying. Completing the bar exam in enough time requires practice, which means you must take bar prep seriously and put in enough time into get your timing down! After all, it does not matter how much you know or how well you know it if you do not have time to answer the questions!
Not practicing under timed conditions is one of the most common avoidable bar prep mistakes – and one that leads to the topic of this post: how big law associates fail the bar exam. Many bar examinees struggle with bar exam timing. Yet, timing is an entirely avoidable reason for failing the bar exam. In the case of timing, practice truly does make perfect! Check out this post with tips for improving your timing on the bar exam, including practice in shorter timed conditions than you will have on the bar exam to give yourself a buffer!
3. They do not follow the proper bar exam format for essay questions.
As noted above, big law firm associates usually did well in law school. For that reason, they fall prey to the misconception that what worked before will work again. That is not necessarily true for the bar exam, though! Bar exam essay questions require much more straightforward answers than law school essays typically do. The bar exam essay answer centers on a set format: rule—application—conclusion. That is why a law school essay answer to a bar exam question will not get you a perfect score. The bar examiners are not looking for lengthy arguments on both sides or lengthy policy analyses (unless you are asked for those). Yet, when big law associates fail the bar, it is sometimes because they stray from the proper essay format.
Check out this post with tips for the transition from law school to the bar exam!
4. They find something just goes wrong on exam day.
It happens to everyone at one time or another – and big law associates are no exception! No matter how hard you prepare, something might go wrong or you may simply have an off day. Maybe you were so nervous the night before the exam that you barely slept and find it hard to power through on exam day. Perhaps you didn’t eat breakfast and felt unfocused. Maybe you overslept and were flustered. Whatever the reason, sometimes things happen unrelated to how hard one has prepared which can result in big law associates failing the bar exam.
Whatever the reason, understanding what went wrong and why you failed the bar the first time is how to avoid it happening in the future.
What Happens When Big Law Associates Fail the Bar Exam?
First of all, if you are a big law associate who has failed the bar, you are not alone! Failing the bar exam is devasting for any aspiring attorney. It happens to big law associates, small firm associates, government attorneys, nonprofit attorneys, and every other type in between.
The bar exam is HARD, and even the smartest people fail the bar exam sometimes. But many people fail the bar exam and go on to have immensely successful careers. Don’t believe us? Check out this post on successful attorneys who failed the bar exam, which includes former First Ladies, past US Presidents, and even a Supreme Court Justice. So, while failing the bar exam feels like the end of the world, we can promise you it is not!
In fact, we find that many (and even most!) big law firms will give their associates a second try to pass the bar. Be sure to ask your firm about their policies on bar exam passage. Keep in mind that many do not have a policy on what happens if an associate needs to take the bar exam a third time, instead making decisions on a case-by-case basis.
If you are worried about failing the bar, do not be afraid to ask your recruiter or HR contact about the firm’s policy. It is a question they probably get fairly often (even from associates who end up passing the bar!). The bar exam is hard and there are many unknowns. You will feel better knowing the policy ahead of time, especially if the firm has a generous bar passage policy!
And, if you do fail, telling your boss you failed the bar is something we recommend doing right away. There is no use in waiting – they will find out anyways!
After Big Law Associates Fail the Bar Exam, is it Possible to Pass on the Second Try?
The main concern when big law associates fail the bar is whether the associate can pass on the second try. The answer is a resounding YES! It is easy to get caught up in the statistics for repeat bar exam takers. It is true that repeat bar exam takers have a lower pass rate than first-time takers. Keep in mind, however, that someone who takes the bar exam a second time is more likely to pass than someone taking it a seventh time. So, passing the bar exam after failing it absolutely is possible!
If you are a big law associate who failed the bar exam, there are a couple of steps to lead you to a passing score on the second try:
1. Take time to process.
When big law associates fail the bar exam, they are often feeling disappointed, surprised, sad – and a whole other range of emotions. We get it. Passing the bar exam is certainly an awful experience. But it is critical to remind yourself that the bar exam is not easy to pass. Before anything else, you should take all the time you need (whether a few days or weeks) to process it. Taking time to reset your mindset for the next administration can make all the difference and best set yours up for success. Remember though that you are not alone (unfortunately, the pass rates for the bar exam are far from 100%!). While you are processing, you should read this note to those who fail the bar exam to prove it!
2. Assess what went wrong.
When big law associates fail the bar, the first step to avoiding it happening again is to assess what went wrong the first time.
You can first look at your score report, if your jurisdiction provides one, to see your performance on each section of the exam. Was your score on the essay portion significantly lower than your score on the multiple-choice section? If so, you need to spend more time practicing essays during your second round of bar prep! Was your performance test section the lowest score? Many students fail to take the performance test seriously, but if you fail by only a few points, this portion of the exam could make all the difference!
Then, look at what you did to prepare. Was your study schedule realistic? Did you allot enough time for studying? Did you use a commercial bar prep course and complete the course requirements? If the answer to any of these is no, consider how you can make improvements the second time around!
3. Assess what went right.
When big law associates fail the bar, they may assume that nothing they did was right. Bu,t that is rarely the case (unless they simply did not study at all!).
Assessing what went right is just as important as assessing what went wrong. The ways to assess what went right are similar to those assessments regarding what went wrong.
Look at your score report. If you scored well on multiple-choice questions, that is a good indicator your preparation for that portion was solid. If you crushed the essay portions, you should stick to what worked best the first time around. And so on!
Again, look at what you did to prepare. Did you complete your course requirements? Spend enough time memorizing? Work on practice questions? Whatever it is that you did best the first time – do that again!
4. Create a new plan.
After assessing what went wrong and what went right, you can form a new plan for studying the second time around! You may consider switching commercial courses, hiring a private tutor, or spending more time on practice questions. Whatever it is – develop a new plan to help ensure you can avoid whatever went wrong the last time!
The key takeaway is that big law associates fail the bar exam for a variety of reasons, but it absolutely is possible to pass – and there are steps you can take to increase your chances of success to pass the bar after failing!
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