There are several certainties in life. Death, taxes, and people failing the bar exam. No one knows the third certainly better than I, having taken the Texas exam three times. I know the disappointment, depression, and feelings of shame and failure that can accompany not seeing your name on that list. The stress may be more than just shame; a job offer may hinge on the results. The ability to hang out that shingle is delayed.
With each failure of the exam, there was also other truths. The truth was that the sun still rose the next day. The truth was that my family still loved me. The truth was that my pets still needed me. The truth was that while I would rather have not had to learn in that way, the failures taught me in a small part how to be a little more resilient in life, and while not right away, that resilience would later help me in my recovery from alcohol and drug issues.
Maybe after succeeding at so many things that got you to the point of sitting for the exam, not passing is your first true experience with a failure. So what now? Maybe the instinct is to head to the local nightspot and get drunk. A call to your weed or cocaine dealer. A descent into either a situational depression or being triggered into a long-lasting clinical problem and shutting yourself off from the world. Feelings of failure will more often than not bring some level of depression with them. Depression is not a choice, but how we deal with it is. Let’s talk about dealing with it in a healthy way.
I reached out to psychologist Kelly Jameson, Ph.D., for some advice. Just imagine you are lying on her couch with your legs up. Nice and relaxed. She is talking only to you. Here is what she has to say:
Failure is a necessary, yet painful part of the human experience. We meet failure on many fronts as adults, but when failure is public, and in tandem with professional peers, it can be downright agony. Failing the bar exam can produce significant emotional distress that can have lasting negative effects on an individual’s personal sense of self and professional confidence.
To avoid the possible emotional downward spiral, this type of failure can be addressed with a few strategies:
- Take time to be disappointed. It’s not reasonable or appropriate to think one can jump right back into the pre-bar exam mental state of readiness and preparation for your second attempt. Give yourself some time to process your sadness in a healthy way. This will look different for everyone, but make time to respect your own feelings. If not processed appropriately, these feelings are pushed down and can become toxic. Talking to a therapist or your mentor is a good first step.
- Talk back to self-doubt. Anytime someone prepares for something as immense as the bar exam, and expectations are not met, self-doubt is always close behind. Am I good enough? Have I made a huge mistake with my chosen profession? Who am I kidding, I’m not smart enough for this! These can be natural responses for anyone! Self-doubt may show up at your door, but don’t invite him in. After all, you likely took multiple prep classes and studied 6-8 hours a day for several months in preparation for this exam. There were even topics on the exam that you didn’t even learn about in law school! You may not have passed the exam, but you showed great tenacity in the preparation, and that counts for something!
- Be honest with yourself. In your quiet moments, when you’re reflecting on your preparation and the exam, what could you have done differently? What aspects of the exam caught you off guard? If we are being honest with ourselves, we can generally reflect on failures and find our part in them. (This goes for personal relationships and professional goals as well!) As a therapist, I often ask my patients, “What would you do differently if you had the chance to do it over again?” More often than not, people come up with a decent amount of “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” responses. Spend some time thinking of those responses and use them for your next attempts.
- Practice your response. No doubt, friends and family will be curious about your results. A simple rehearsed response will help you in those awkward conversations when you may not want to talk about the exam. Something along the lines of, “Well, I didn’t pass, but I’m taking another shot at it in February.” This quick response will give you a sense of control over the conversation. You’ve acknowledged the failure, yet shown optimism for next time. A second response will be needed in the months leading up to the next exam. When it seems like everyone and their mother is asking you, “How’s the studying going? Do you feel ready?” Have your response handy when needed. Try, “Well, it’s a process, but I’m working hard.”
- When you’re emotionally ready, get busy! You’ve processed your disappointment, talked back to self-doubt, reviewed your past experience of preparation, created your social response to friends and family, and now the mental process of preparation begins again! Here’s the neurological truth, when you experience something for the first time, your brain is working hard to create new pathways to understand that experience. However, the second time around is not as psychologically stimulating, because your brain has already created the neurological pathway needed for understanding. That’s a fancy way to say the second (or third!) time around will be different. The mystery is gone. You know what’s coming, and your response is more regulated. If there’s a silver lining to failing the bar exam, this is it! You will be more mentally prepared to make sense of the questions because your brain is not working as hard to understand the overall experience.
- Manage your stress level. When you are stressed, your brain releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is toxic to the body if the brain is excreting it too often. Taking the bar exam will cause you stress. Perhaps a job is contingent on you passing, maybe your firm is paying for your prep classes (again!), or you’re the only one in a family of attorneys who failed the bar exam. The stressors are vast, but knowing how you best manage your own stress is critical to your success. Practicing self-care, knowing what daily routine works for you, eating properly, hydrating, exercising, and practicing good sleep hygiene are all practical, yet very necessary, components of this process of preparation.
- Mental health triggers. If you are prone to depression or anxiety, make sure you are making and keeping your appointments with your therapist and prescribing health provider. Failure can trigger depression and anxiety, so make sure you are taking care of your mental health.
- Don’t become a recluse! Yes, you have a professional project that needs tending, but keeping a life outside of studying is paramount to your mental health and overall well-being. Finding a healthy balance that works for you will be your key to success as your take another shot at the bar exam!
Failing the bar exam might be a humbling, vulnerable chapter in your life story, but will it be one of shame or perseverance? Only you can decide.
Kelly Jameson, Ph.D., is a licensed professional counselor-supervisor and public speaker. She provides therapeutic services in Dallas, Texas, to adolescent and adults on a variety of issues including mood disorders, eating disorders, and many adjustment issues. Her current research is examining the effect of heartbreak on the developing adolescent brain. More information about Dr. Jameson can be found on her website at www.drkellyjameson.com.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.