Growth mindset tells us that we learn from mistakes and that failure does not define us. While this is true, it is also true that failure is painful and challenging to overcome. Failing the bar exam often feels devastating and like the end of the world. In a way, it is because of the professional, financial, and personal consequences.
Oftentimes when someone fails the bar exam their instinct is reactive and they turn to “performative fixes” such as immediately doing practice questions, switching bar companies, buying extra products, hiring a tutor, starting the entire program from scratch, etc. They want to erase that failure and quickly move forward. However, to overcome failure and get a different outcome, you first have to examine the factors that led to it and figure out what inputs will achieve a different result. Hard work without awareness and change without reflection is not how to overcome failure.
When it comes to repeat bar takers, we want to assess and address three main factors: practical, mental/emotional, and intellectual.
The practical factor is setting up the framework of studying. It includes setting up a macro-level action plan and creating a study plan. But resist the temptation to make a study schedule too early. The first meeting should be about laying the foundation of support and providing a sense of direction. There is only so much the person can process so the first step is to communicate that you are there to support their success and you will work together to develop a plan. Start with a macro level action plan that includes things like requesting a score report, submitting the exam application, re-activating commercial bar prep, talking with their employer, setting up a meeting with career development, etc. These action items are more than perfunctory tasks, they provide information needed to create a workable study plan. For example, you can’t make a schedule until you know your employment expectations- how much time off will you have to study, is it paid or unpaid?
One important reassurance to provide is that the person is not starting from zero. They do not have to “do this all over again.” This is where you create the connection from the practical skills to the mental/emotional skills.
The mental and emotional factors include processing failure stigma, developing realistic optimism, and support not therapy.
We know that perfection is impossible and everyone fails. But failing the bar exam is a big fail and it hurts. Even using the word is difficult and although you can interchange it with “taking it again,” “didn’t pass,” don’t avoid it. Not saying “failure” gives the word power and stigmatizes it. As Brene Brown says, “shame loves perfectionists, it’s so easy to keep us quiet.”
Although we don’t want bar takers to be pessimistic about their ability to pass, we also can’t give a false sense of hope. Confronting failure has to be balanced with developing realistic optimism.1 Realistic optimism- as opposed to naïve optimism (wishful thinking) is the idea of having faith in long-term success while being honest about short-term reality.
This means fully processing the failure so they can fully engage with bar prep. There will be times when the person wants to revert back to comfortable strategies like reading outlines and making flash cards. This only serves to avoid the uncomfortableness, the fear, the self-doubt. This is where our reassurance and support has to nudge them towards it, to go through the uncomfortableness.
To be sure, the person will experience low moments. Be ready to give them the space to go through it and simply acknowledge, “ok, this is hard” instead of trying to fix it or devalue their feelings with, “it will be fine,” as if the person shouldn’t feel this way.
We must also be conscious of the difference between support and therapy. Even if you are a therapist, you are not their therapist. Be clear and direct that your role is to support their success and help unravel some of their thoughts about the bar exam, but you are not a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor can help process through feelings—they have experienced a loss and it’s hard. This connection between self-worth and achievement is where the intellectual skill fits in.
The intellectual factor is more than studying. It involves metacognition: Assessing past performance and preparation to identify a new starting point, moving away from outcome and knowledge focused study habits to process and assessment strategies.
Assessing past performance starts by asking the person what they did the first time, what they think worked, what didn’t. Oftentimes the person did just about everything right so it’s a matter of identifying the gaps and adjusting accordingly. Figuring out the gap requires effortful learning and won’t happen instantly. The person is at point A and wants to get to point B but to do that they must first figure out how and then practice doing it. You cannot do this for them. Telling them how to get there is not the same thing as doing it themselves.
This helps with buy-in to the “new” strategies that aren’t comfortable, don’t outsource effort and don’t give a quick fix. This quick fix comes from grades, scores, and completion percentages. This is not feedback, it is a starting point. The person should be able to articulate why they earned a certain score, what questions they missed, why did they miss those questions, what is confusing, what isn’t, etc.2
Second, move away from knowledge-focused studying like memorization, reading and reviewing flashcards, or reading answer explanations. Learning does not happen when we put information into our brains, it happens when we pull it out.
Process and assessment based strategies center on developing the three basic skills tested on the bar exam: knowledge, understanding, and application. Too often we focus on knowledge but just as reciting the alphabet does not mean you can read, reciting a rule does not mean you understand what it means or can explain how it works.
Here are a few examples of strategies that promote metacognition and focus on developing skills beyond basic knowledge:
- MEE “Just the Facts”- construct an essay response by starting with the analysis and writing the rules last. Read the fact pattern and explain the relevance of each fact and how it supports the outcome. Then write the rules supporting this analysis.
- MEE Issue-Because…- outline an essay response identifying as many issues as you can, using the facts to articulate why it is an issue (because…)
- MBE IRAC – Identify the central issue from the facts, recall the relevant rule, write out how they apply to answer choices.
- MBE- Elimination Reasoning- articulate the analysis process by writing out why you eliminate answer choices, why are they wrong.
- MBE Reason for the mistake- After answering questions, see what you got wrong but do not read the answer explanation. Figure out why your choice was wrong and others are correct. Use explanation to confirm.
Preparing for the bar exam is like learning to ride a bicycle. Bar prep material is the bike itself. To ride a bike you must be able to steer, balance, and pedal. To pass the bar exam you must develop practical, emotional/mental, and intellectual factors. When we learn to ride a bike we do not try to learn all three simultaneously, we use training wheels and incorporate the balancing skill after we have learned to steer and pedal, or we use a balance bicycle and incorporate pedals after we learn to steer and balance. Working harder at one does not improve the ability to do the others. The same is true for working with repeat bar takers. The practical, emotional/mental, and intellectual factors work together but they also have to be individually addressed. It is hard work but the reward makes it worth doing.
1 Also known as the Stockdale Paradox, “you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal of facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” See Jim Collins, Stockdale Concept, https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/Stockdale-Concept.html (last visited April 5, 2022).
2 Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, & Mark A. McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, 15-16, 43 (2014).