What I Learned About Life From Failing The California Bar Exam

I graduated from one of the top ten law programs in the nation, and I failed the July 2013 California bar exam.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to open with that self-validating fact about myself.  I think I did so because I realized that when you reach a level of education or age (or credential) it becomes taboo to publicly air out your shortcomings and disclose your failures to others.  When you graduate from law school, much less a “Tier 1” program, accept a job at a big law firm not so different from that portrayed on Suits, people just expect you to have your shit together.  That is, until some seemingly colossal failure like failing the bar exam interrupts your pre-ordained path to making paper (or saving the world).

When I first learned that I failed, those next few days felt like weeks.  I dreaded waking up in the morning because I would have to face the reality that I would either have to press through another three months of studying and intensive practice or forgo my job offer and pursue God knows what.  For me, law has always been “part of the journey” but never the destination.  So when I failed, I naturally had to rethink a lot of my priorities and purposes.  If I fail again, what am I going to do?  For as long as I can remember, my becoming a lawyer was the next step — the secure step — the door to greener metaphorical pastures.  What do I tell my friends, relatives, mentors, professors, all of whom had the utmost faith in me and my abilities as the mature grad student that I was so good at (pretending?) to be?  After nearly nine years of smoothly sailing through life, I faced a brutal reminder in failing the bar that life swings both ways, and I better be ready to go when shit hits the fan.  I gathered my old books, hired a private tutor, and on my bar studies went.

Fast forward to now, a week before the February 2014 bar.  Looking back, some (dare I say much) good came from all this.  First, I realized that really smart people also failed on their first try so I’m in good company.  It’s humbling to tell people that I’m hoping, because at this point it is but hope, to be a practicing attorney—where I would otherwise already be spouting off that I’m a litigation associate at Partner Partner & Partner in downtown LA.  Second, I realized that the truism that “if you want to make God laugh, just tell him all your plans” is pretty true.  I studied my ass off for that bar exam, and when I failed, in my heart of hearts, I believed that my life was veering off course.  The speed bump woke me from my daily grind of entitlement and expectation that my fate was to become a lawyer, at least for the foreseeable future.  But from that wake-up call, came the sobering and fresh realization that plans are just plans.  It’s important to make them but more important to not be ruled by them.  Lastly, and equally simple but profound, life goes on.  These past few weeks, I’ve been replaying this quote from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” over and over in my head: “that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”  That which we are, we are.  That which I am, I am.  That which befalls me, befalls me.  I can’t command the universe, nor would I want to do so.  I’ve accepted my failures of past and have chosen not to let those failures define me or my future.  I will be ready to kick ass and take names (of all the tortfeasors) next week.  But, I also take comfort in knowing that pass or fail, life will go on.  And, at the end it all, I will still bear the privilege of deciding whether I want to keep striving and seeking or turn that energy toward other pursuits. TC mark

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