Guide: 4 Steps to Take if you Fail the Bar Exam

Preparing and taking the bar exam is a marathon. There is no getting around the enormous amount of work and stress that is dumped on you during this last leg of becoming an attorney. Unfortunately, not everyone passes the bar exam on the first go. Failing the bar exam is certainly an obstacle but it does not have to be a career-changing one if you don’t let it. Read on to learn about the steps you need to take after failing the bar exam.  

1) Notify People Who Need to Know

Telling everyone you know that you failed the bar exam sounds horrible and you certainly do not have to do it. In fact, this might be a little less painful than it actually sounds because the vast majority of people do not need to know and have no business knowing whether you passed the bar exam.

Now, it’s true that bar exam pass lists are publicly available from individual state websites, but who is actually going to look that list up and scour it for your name anyway? I didn’t even realize that there was a publicly available pass list until months after I took the exam. So I would say that for the most part, only the people you disclose your results to will know whether you passed or failed.

So who do you actually have to disclose your bar results to? The only person you will likely need to disclose your bar results to is your boss. If you are currently working at a firm under someone’s bar license then you will certainly need to inform your boss. Do not procrastinate in informing your boss, the sooner you do so the smoother it will go over. Additionally, you can sit well in knowing that in most cases firms don’t fire associates for failing the first time. That being said, smaller firms will vary significantly in policy, but most major firms give their associates a second chance to pass the bar.

2) Reflect on What Went Wrong in Preparation

Unless a freak accident can explain your failed bar exam, it’s likely that something went wrong in your preparation. Reflecting on your bar exam performance is not an enjoyable exercise but it is a necessary one. Doing essentially the same thing over again and expecting different results is the opposite of what you want to do, so reflection is a must. Some questions to be asking include:

  • (i) Did you use a prep course? If yes, how much of it did you complete?
  • (ii) Did you take practice bar exams? How well did you perform?
  • (ii) Did you create a study schedule and did you actually stick to it?

These are just a few of the questions you should be considering as you reflect on what went wrong.

If you did not use a preparation course you should strongly consider purchasing one for the next go-round. Bar prep courses are not cheap, they start at around $2,000 and run all the way up to $7,000 or even greater. On the other hand, the best bar prep courses can offer structure, well-done lectures, and extremely helpful multiple choice and essay practice exam review. I spent more than $5,000 on my Barbri bar prep course and yes it was expensive but I believe it was extremely helpful.

If you took practice bar exams and you took note of where you performed poorly, you should place additional focus on these subjects when you prepare yourself for your second bar exam.

Finally, creating and sticking to a study schedule is extremely important for anyone preparing for the bar exam and not taking a bar prep course. The bar exam is a marathon and it requires hundreds of hours of study time. This becomes even more difficult if you can’t stick to a schedule.  

3) Consider When You Want to Retake the Bar Exam

The next major thing to think about is when you actually want to retake the bar exam. Luckily, most states have no limits on how many times you can take the bar exam, however, a sizeable minority of states do have a limitation and it varies state to state between three (3) – six (6) attempts. Check with your state if you have already retaken the exam several times, but for anyone who has failed the exam only once you will be allowed to retake it.

So when do you want to retake the exam? The bar exam is only offered twice a year, so if you took the exam in July you can retake it in February. Luckily, February is plenty of time to fix whatever holes you had in your bar preparation on the first take. I would strongly recommend that you take your second (2nd) bar exam in February, that way you can take advantage of everything you learned during your first go-round. The longer you wait to retake the exam, the more you will forget and the harder you will have to study for the second exam.

4) Confirm That You Want to be a Lawyer

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Failing the bar exam the first time puts you in a very unique position. For the first time since you decided to take the LSAT you are probably considering the question “do I really want to be a practicing attorney?” After three (3) years of law school and likely a heavy accumulation of debt, I suspect for most readers it will be a resounding “yes”. But I still recommend that you consider the question. Confirming that you want to be a lawyer will support your determination in preparing for a second (2nd) bar exam. On the other hand, if you decide that the law just is not for you, then you can make the change now to doing something else with your career.


Failing the bar exam is a tough pill to swallow but it certainly does not have to be the thing that holds you back from becoming a lawyer. In states like California, the pass rate is often below 60% for first-time test takers. Failing the bar exam means that you will have to put some additional effort into filling gaps that you have in your knowledge and application of pertinent legal principles. With these steps in mind and some additional work on your part, you will have a much better chance at passing the bar exam the second (2nd) time.

Stephen Metellus

I am a 3L law student in Washington D.C and owner of! I started law school with a lot of hopes and expectations, and it has certainly been a wild ride from the start! My goal is writing articles that help you in navigating through law school.

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