Ask the Professor: What Happens if You Fail the Bar Exam?

It’s 12:01 a.m. Your phone pings as an email arrives from the Board of Law Examiners. The bar exam results are here. You nervously open the email and quickly scan through until you see, “We regret to inform you …” Why bother reading any further, you know what it says. A rush of emotions pour over you. Anguish. Embarrassment. Anger. Then questions start popping up.

What am I going to tell my parents? Why didn’t I study harder? What is wrong with me? What do I do now?

Over the coming days, people will tell you how Hillary Clinton failed the bar or that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo failed several times, but that won’t make you feel better. You’ll get words of encouragement from friends and family, but that will only make things worse. What you need is a plan…

I have made a name for myself by helping people who were previously unsuccessful pass the bar exam the next time around. From the elderly man who had failed dozens of times and just wanted to close that chapter of his life to JFK Jr., whose MBE score I was able to help raise 49 points, I have worked with them all. And each had the same problem. They all believed that if they just studied a little harder they would pass the next go around.

But what I have learned in my 40 years preparing students for the bar exam is that people rarely fail the exam because they don’t know enough law. People fail because they don’t know how to score points with what they do know. The bar exam is a test of analytical skills, not an exam of who can regurgitate the most law.

So how do you learn these test taking skills? If you took a bar review course the first time, it’s possible you qualify for a free “do over” course. However, as Albert Einstein famously said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” This time you need to forgo traditional bar review courses and step outside the box. As I have said before, bar review cannot relatively improve your chances of passing the bar exam over your G.P.A. rank at graduation.

So, here is my advice:

1). You have the basics, now learn how to score points. In most of bar review, you accumulate information. As the formal course comes to an end it is up to you to build exam performance by practice and memory. Do not go back to accumulating information again. Don’t take the do over course or switch to another full bar course. This time, seek out a bar course specifically for the retaker or use tutors and supplemental training programs to help with the exam performance part of your preparation.

2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Tutoring is usually seen as a remedial measure for those who aren’t smart enough to understand basic concepts. But the reality is that many of the students at the top of the class work with tutors. That’s why they are at the top of the class. A tutor is so much more than just someone who goes over your homework. A tutor can help you manage your time, diagnose your problems, and help you break down the most difficult concepts in your problem subjects. You can use your prior bar course material and let the tutor set up and supervise a study schedule, drill you on the law and train you in skills.

3) When it comes to doing MBE questions, quality not quantity is key. The bar examiners wrote each question with a specific answer in mind. To find that answer, you need a method. Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice does. First, learn a method to do MBE questions. (You may want to take an MBE supplemental course to learn a method).  Practice mastering the method doing a limited amount of questions a day; usually 25 are enough. Second, a few weeks into your studies and once you have a method down, increase the number of questions you do daily to 50.  Then, in the last few weeks before the exam, tackle 50 questions a day, doing questions from mixed subject areas. Quality of practice is key. And by using this approach you will still do a sufficient quantity to improve your score.

4) The written section is 50% of your grade. The essays and MPT make up about 50% of your grade. With both, you need a method to practice. In the beginning, outline to get the method down. (Again, you may want to take a supplemental course to learn a method. Some supplements like my Maximizers combine training for all the parts of the test in one package). The last few weeks you must write essays and MPTs to completion. The written section is not just issue spotting but tests how you resolve the problem at issue and asks you to demonstrate analytical skills.

5) Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on your strengths and make sure you maximize your score on your strong subjects. The Rule against Perpetuities is rarely tested. So don’t go nuts trying to figure it out. You know that two thirds of the Torts MBE questions will be on negligence. Focus on the major topics to maximize your points.

6) Don’t panic. Most of all, if you did fail, don’t panic! While this is likely the first time in your life that you failed at something, it’s just a small speed bump on the way to something much bigger. So, take a deep breath (and a shot of whiskey) and come up with a plan.

Feel free to send me your score report if you need any help understanding what went wrong. Or you can email it to me at and I will call you and give a free evaluation.

I’m happy to help anyone get through this. I am here for you.