How to move forward following a bar letdown

By Deborah Sanders 

You didn’t pass the bar. Now what? Somewhere there is a voice inside you answering this question. Maybe it’s a muted whisper and not yet a resounding bellow, but I assure you that you didn’t come all this way to stop listening to yourself. When the disappointment and hurts fade, take some time to listen to your steadier internal messages. I urge you to take a deep breath, remember who you are, listen to yourself, and prepare to begin again.

I always remind my students that I do not have a personal agenda in terms of whether they desire to take the bar exam. They can decide to become a baker or a mixologist and it would not matter to me. I see myself more as the guide to usher them on their chosen path. But I have come to learn some things about bar takers and human nature. Most people who went through the rigors of law school, and a failed bar attempt for that matter, want the final reward. They want the license, even if they do not need it.

Probably a full third of my re-takers are made up of a population that does not need a license to do their current work. Yet what I have learned from these people about the motivation to sit “one more time” is that high-achieving people with uncompleted goals remain in an unresolved state of self-doubt. The self-doubt can be disorienting for those whose usual reference-point is success at all things; it can also be diminishing to the spirit, and can color a person’s view of themselves forever, away from that all capable self-concept to an opposite, though erroneous, view of complete incompetence.

In many cases, people retaking that test who do not need their license have other more enduring character-related goals that passing the exam can help them achieve. An example comes to mind: a woman whose family was accustomed to her constant availability and willingness to put everyone else first had to learn to demand the time she needed to study properly. For her, carving out this space for herself to prepare properly allowed her to address what had been a lifelong habit of subordinating herself and her needs to others. She shed some tears and resisted a bit as I tried to urge her to set limits and to put the test in the place it deserved as a serious endeavor.

Making time demands for herself was more challenging for her than the exam tasks. But the self-growth from facing that fear was ultimately so much greater than a license to practice law. When she passed, in addition to her own expressions of gratitude for pushing her beyond her comfort level, I received a warm note from her husband about how much his wife had transformed in the process of bar prep and how she learned to advocate for herself and become more self-assured.  

Even where a student does wish to practice law with their license, learning how to self-advocate is a crucial skill. Young judicial law clerks or associates working in big law firms find that the direct confrontation necessary to ask a superior about accommodating a study schedule, whether the superior is a judge or a more senior lawyer, is paralyzing. But doing so can help establish the very kind of confidence that ultimately leads to respect and success in the profession.

There is a natural sense of hierarchy in the law profession. As law students we are trained to be deferential with professors, whose expertise and prominence eclipses us. As young law clerks, working as “pre-lawyers,” we operate with an extreme awareness of our inferior stature, knowing that we lack any real credential, and putting us somewhat at the mercy of our employers. Or so we think. Asking a superior for more time to study seems unimaginable to so many re-takers.

Yet that courage is exactly what is necessary to be considered an equal in the profession and to face off with an adversary, or sometimes even a judge. As hard as it may be to request an accommodation from someone wearing a judicial robe and whose name is preceded by the title “Judge,” I can assure you that cowering will not gain you the respect you crave in the legal world, and it will not help your clients either.

In both examples, a person who has not passed the bar feels an extra layer of insecurity that tends to compound other insecure traits. If you have a fear of authority, or feel generally unworthy, or struggle with direct confrontation, all of these traits will be amplified by shaken self-confidence. Over the years, one may begin to accommodate the insecurity by seeking fewer challenging opportunities or accepting a diminished earning potential.

I had a re-taker who failed her exam 30 years prior to coming me. At the time we met, she was doing various odd jobs, earning very little money, and generally feeling very diminished from her former version of herself. Deciding to take the exam 30 years after a failed attempt was itself a step back into the person she once knew as willful and able. When she passed the exam, she instantly changed every contour of her life, becoming an advocate for underrepresented people and using her former silenced voice to argue on behalf of other people feeling diminished.

The key to the dilemma about whether to retake the test again is that you must steady yourself after the blow and remain quiet enough to listen to the voice. You may decide that you are truly at peace with letting the whole endeavor go, and for that I applaud your self-awareness. If, however, there is a quiet recurring voice urging you to try again, listen. You know that voice and it has served you well. Take a deep breath. And begin again.

Deborah Sanders is owner of Bar-None Prep and is based in New Jersey. She has been teaching thousands of bar students throughout the country based on her unique method aimed at providing a methodical and predictable approach to passing the bar for more than a decade. She is writing a book on "The Spiritual Path to Passing the Bar" and her writings can be read on, where she has a regular column, and Deborah also independently tutors law students both through her company, Bar-None Prep and on the platform.