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Retaking The Bar Exam: Your Opportunity To Cultivate Wellness

 

f you are one of the many lawyers now practicing law after having to retake the bar exam, that whole experience is likely one of the last things you want to think about. You know those feelings of devastation and despair when you didn’t see your name on that pass list. You recall that split in your heart between happiness for your friends who passed and sadness that you did not. Perhaps you were embarrassed to tell your friends and family that you didn’t pass. Even worse, some of them already knew because they looked for and didn’t see your name. What would they think?

 

Then there was the panic and anxiety that set in if you didn’t have a job yet and were very aware that the deferment period for your student loans was about to end. It would be months before you could even take the next scheduled exam. Your hopes, dreams and professional career were all put on hold while everyone around you moved on with theirs. You had to find the inner strength and motivation to go through another grueling round of preparation.

If you had been paying attention to bar passage rates and statistics, you were also aware that those who failed once were likely to fail again. Ugh! It was horrible going through that painful experience, so why would you ever want to think about it again? After all, when you did pass, the overwhelming joy, relief and gratitude you felt was enough to finally put the darkness of that experience behind you. Most likely, nobody has ever asked about your bar exam results again, and you have been successfully practicing law and pursuing new personal and professional goals. So why look back now?

The New Lawyers Working Group, a subcommittee of the Chief Justice Commission on Professional Development, is working on a wellness initiative for all non-passing bar examinees. In Colorado, our law schools have programs to help their students as they prepare to retake the exam. Those programs largely focus on resources and assistance for retaking the exam itself. While both DU and CU offer support for non-exam related issues faced by their students, there is a lack of resources and support systems for those non-passing Colorado Bar examinees who attended schools outside of Colorado. While those examinees may be able to retake a bar prep course, they don’t have access to the same or similar CU/DU programs. They may lack the support systems of their fellow law school classmates.

They might not have a job or access to as many local job search tools and programs as do those from the Colorado law schools. As a profession, we need to do more to cultivate compassion and connections to welcome these newest members of the legal profession. We could be providing support beyond the exam prep and addressing the wellness issues related to retaking the Colorado Bar Exam. This is where you come in.
Only someone who did retake the bar exam before passing can honestly say she or he knows what it’s like to “fail” the exam. Having gone through it, you have the opportunity to provide empathetic understanding in a way that first-time passers simply cannot. You can identify with the multitude of feelings and anxiety between learning of your failing and passing scores. Maybe you also learned some things about yourself in the process, like your ability to overcome adversity or to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and just embrace who you are. Despite those initial feelings, you learned that failing the bar exam was not the worst thing in the world and, hopefully, that you were not alone in the process. The gifts you received from that experience will take on even greater meaning when you are willing to share your story with someone going through the same struggles now and in need of a compassionate perspective.

On behalf of the New Lawyers Working Group, I invite you to participate in this wellness initiative. As a starting point, we offer you two opportunities to share your experience. First, through the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program, we need lawyers to provide one-on-one mentoring specific to the experience of retaking the bar exam. You can do that by signing up to mentor with CAMP. Second, we need lawyers willing to share their retake stories in a short video to be viewed as a resource to exam re-takers. We know that nobody wants to admit they’ve failed at anything, let alone the bar exam. You don’t want to remind yourself or your professional peers who have already forgotten about your retake, and you certainly don’t want to “out” yourself now to those who had no idea you had to retake the bar exam. While humility and vulnerability are difficult, they can be such great gifts. So, I’ll start out asking you to share your story by telling you that I wouldn’t ask you do anything that I’m not willing to do myself.

I took the Colorado Bar Exam four times in two years. I went to law school in Minnesota, and the only other person from my class now in Colorado passed on the first try. While surrounded by a supportive family, I felt so alone. I was disappointed in myself and felt like I had let my family and friends down as well. I was so grateful that I already had a job as a District Court Law Clerk in Adams County. I had only been there two months. What would everyone I worked with think of me? I questioned my decision to take the Colorado exam, where I needed a score of 276 to pass, instead of the Minnesota exam where I would have only needed a 260. I had already been blessed with a first career before law school. What was I thinking? Why did I ever put myself through all of this in the first place? Where would I get the strength to do it all again? Thankfully, I had the benefit of a lot of life experiences to look back on for guidance and frequent reality checks. Each time I fell short of the 276 point passing score, I allowed myself to get through the initial disappointment and self-doubt before taking a close look back at the many opportunities disguised as obstacles that life had previously presented to me.

 

 

My only dream as a kid was to go to college. That seemed nearly impossible for a Mexican American girl whose father was an immigrant, whose parents were divorced farm laborers who never graduated from high school, and who had a family history of alcoholism, domestic violence and poverty. It simply took a little looking back on my life to come to the conclusion that getting to retake the bar exam was a huge blessing and a gift that not everyone had the opportunity to do in the first place. Giving up on my goal of practicing law was simply not an option. So many times life had taken me off the path I had mapped out for myself, and somewhere along the way I had learned to embrace the detours.

More importantly, I couldn’t have persisted without the loving support of family, friends and other lawyers. While I knew my family believed in me and wanted to support me in any way possible, I couldn’t fully explain to them what it was like to go through the bar exam experience. The support of lawyers and judges around me was a huge and positive influence in my attitude, confidence and persistence. For most of those “bar exam years,” I was fortunate to be clerking with Judge John Popovich. On many occasions, he reminded me that the exam was a difficult one, but that it was just a written test that was in no way representative of the type of lawyer he knew I would be. He never treated me any less than any lawyer or judicial officer who walked into our courtroom. He reminded me of the things in life that are really important and modeled professionalism in ways that no bar exam could even begin to cover.

Also, I will never forget the day that Judge Tom Ensor took the time to talk with me after learning I had, again, not passed. He had observed my disappointment and frustration and knew I was hurting. At that point, some people didn’t even have the words to express encouragement as they may very well have been having some of the same thoughts I was having: would I ever pass the bar exam? Instead of saying nothing to avoid the awkwardness of the situation, for a moment he was my “courthouse dad” that I really needed. He gave me a hug and reminded me that I was loved and valued by my courthouse family. He, too, wanted to assure me that the bar exam was no indicator of my ability to practice law and be the kind of lawyer that makes a difference. He wanted me to know that there were plenty of lawyers who went in and out of our courthouse every day that had to retake the bar exam but, for whatever reason, didn’t want to admit it. Without ever naming names, he assured me that I was in excellent company, definitely not alone, and that when I did finally pass it was going to be all that much sweeter. He was so right.

The day I finally saw my name on the pass list, I was in the courtroom in the middle of our morning docket. I had been too anxious to look. Seeing my name on that list was pure joy! As calmly as I could, I got up from my desk on the side of the bench, walked out into the hallway, literally jumped up and down, and did the happiest dance I could sneak in before walking back into the courtroom. That was over 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve been blessed with a great career, filled with many professional and leadership opportunities, both in the legal profession and in the community. Along the way I’ve had more setbacks and successes, with the continued support of those same friends, family and my “courthouse dads.” As I continue to set and achieve new personal and professional goals, I’m so grateful for the blessings that came from the experience of retaking the bar exam and the opportunity to share the same support that was provided to me. D

 

If you are one of the increasing number of lawyers who was admitted to practice after having to retake the bar exam, please consider mentoring through CAMP or sharing your story as part of a video which will also highlight resources available through the Colorado Lawyers Assistance Program (COLAP) and CAMP. To mentor retakers, you can create a mentoring profile at www.camp.chronus.com and select “Overcoming Unsuccessful Bar Exam Results” as a mentoring area of competency. To share your story on video, email Mariana Vielma at mvielma@adcogov.org or Emma Garrison at Garrison@wtotrial.com.