A Response to “Law School Graduates Would Rather Die Than Fail the Bar Exam.”

Over at the Legal Skills Prof Blog (a blog that I read daily, and very much appreciate), there is a post that focuses on the incredible pressure that law graduates feel to pass the bar on the first time. The post highlights a quote from an article on Above the Law about retaking the bar.

I’m grateful that the post acknowledges the outsized pressure that law school graduates  feel to pass the bar on the first try. I have often heard people speak as though their careers and lives will be over if they don’t pass the bar the first time. That isn’t true, of course, but the pressure is very real.

However, the author of the post points to law school admissions as the solution – simply stop admitting people who are unlikely to pass the bar. That analysis shifts the focus to the wrong place. Yes, law schools have a responsibility not to take money and 3-4 years from people who are unlikely to succeed in law school and on the bar exam. And, yes, law schools have a responsibility to give their students the tools they need to succeed on the bar exam.

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But, it’s not law school admissions that has created the overwhelming pressure to pass the bar on the first try. The fact that first time bar passage and employment stats are seen as the only metrics of whether a law school is worthy of existence is the problem. U.S. News, law  journals, and other media outlets only focus on a school’s first time bar pass rate, as if passing the bar on the second try means you shouldn’t have been admitted to law school in the first place. That hurts our students and alums. Even the ABA is coming around to recognizing that passage rates of repeat takers matters.

We all know the stories of famous people who took the bar more than once (JFK Jr., Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton to name a few.) We need to start normalizing retaking the bar. Often my graduates who need to retake the bar are shocked to find out that some of the people working in their law firms and some of their faculty members didn’t pass the bar on the first try. But they only find that out after they have failed the bar and had to “come out” to those around them. We all seem to buy in to the notion that first time pass rates are all that matters. That idea is harmful to so many of our recent graduates.

Of course, we should always strive to help our students pass the bar on the first try. But, it is only through destigmatizing taking the bar more than once that we will begin to make a dent in the enormous pressure we put on recent graduates to pass the bar on the first time. That pressure itself can lead to tremendous anxiety, which gets in the way of achieving a passing score. Passing the bar on the first try is as much a psychological feat as it is an academic one.

We owe it to our students and recent graduates to do better. We also owe it to their future clients to care about the mental health of members of our profession.