The following piece is a transparent discussion about my bar exam experience. I intend to raise further awareness about why the bar exam is a deeply flawed assessment mechanism, methodically contrived to reinforce and reward privilege. I do not intend to devalue or dismiss the successes rightfully enjoyed by my colleagues. If you passed the exam, congrats! Take a victory lap. But remember, we have a lot of work to do to meaningfully change the system.
If you did not pass, take the next few days for yourself. Get off of social media. Mute any terms associated with the exam. I know that there’s nothing I or anyone else can say to you right now to make this any better. You are fully justified in feeling sad and angry about it. At some point though, I do hope you take a moment to acknowledge that taking the exam is applaudable on its own, especially when you consider how many obstacles you had to overcome to even get to this point.
And FWIW, in my opinion, you didn’t fail the bar. The State Bar of California failed you. Any good instructor worth their salt knows that when only 53% of their students achieve success, the instructor has failed in their role as an educator. Those involved with this system should be severely troubled over this year’s results. It’s a glaring sign that this exam is profoundly defective.
I passed the July 2021 California Bar Exam. Of all the questions I’ve received so far (and indeed, there were several considering I wasn’t planning to take the exam in the first place), the one I’ve particularly struggled to answer is “how do you feel?”
For the most part, I feel relieved that I never have to endure this archaic hazing ritual ever again. I guess you could say I’m happy, though admittedly, I haven’t quite felt like celebrating, hence my delayed and unenthusiastic announcement. That’s not to say that passing an exam notorious for its dismal success rate isn’t a tremendous feat worthy of celebration. Rather, 48 hours later, I personally can’t help but feel as if I shouldn’t have passed.
This isn’t about imposter syndrome. This is about privilege.
Taking the July 2021 bar exam was never part of my plan. Back in May, I was offered my dream role in public policy. The offer presented a pivotal decision point in my budding career: fully lean into this new venture, or take the bar exam. I knew that I would have to take two months off to study; a delay that simply wouldn’t mix with this dream opportunity. So, I accepted the offer, knowing that I could always take the exam in February, or maybe even never at all.
Like most of the unconventional decisions I’ve made throughout my law school career, my decision to delay the bar was not immune to critique. Granted, all of the swirl came from a good place, and it’s nice to know that so many people care about my future. There was one opinion that stood out though: life happens, and as you get busier in the new job, it will only become harder to find the time. In other words, it was now or never. Of course, it seemed I had already made my choice.
If you ever want to experience true delusion, try Googling “how to pass the California bar exam while working full time.” The Internet, my husband, my professors, and every commercial bar exam guide I came across made it crystal clear that not only was this a terrible idea, but it was borderline impossible. They say you should plan on studying at a minimum 40-50 hours/week (i.e. the typical minimum for holding down a full-time job). And yet, with all signs pointing to no, my stubbornness got the best of me.
That’s how I ended up studying for the hardest bar exam in the U.S. while ramping up in the most demanding role of my Internet policy career. Suffice to say, this past summer was hell.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of myself. I worked hard to get here and in many ways, I earned my success despite the self-made disadvantage. But here’s the thing: compared to many others that are forced to participate in this racist, ableist, and classist formality, I was merely inconvenienced, but never truly disadvantaged. For me, passing the bar exam wasn’t some Herculean battle of the wits, rather it was the product of immense privilege. And that’s why my success feels rather unfair. For me, it’s kind of like graduating from college. When you grow up white, able-bodied, neurotypical (for the most part), and financially secure in a loving household with two supportive parental figures, success is not only expected but guaranteed.
I don’t take lightly that I was in a position to choose this path for myself. I recognize that many are forced into the work/study predicament because without the former, the latter is physically and financially unobtainable. Unlike many of my colleagues, I already had a decent job lined up had I chosen to take the time off. My job security is not dependent on my exam results. And better yet, I could have just as easily lived off my husband’s salary, while I “enjoyed” having all the time in the world to study without ever entertaining a single concern about my personal welfare. Not to mention, I don’t have kids and aside from my incredibly healthy husband, I don’t really have family members I’m responsible for taking care of. Now, imagine trying to work full time, raise and take care of a family, and scrape together 40-50 hours/week just for bar prep. It’s not an imaginary circumstance, it’s a reality experienced by many exam-takers every single exam cycle.
Let’s not also forget that for many exam-takers, this particular exam season (and the prior) came with its own unique set of challenges with the global pandemic. The California Bar required that students find an empty, distraction-free place to take the exam, or face automatic failure. A person walks in view? Fail. Baby crying off-camera? Fail. Wrong size laptop? Fail. Internet goes out? Fail. Drink water? Fail. Use the restroom? Fail. So, COVID-19 wasn’t really an issue for exam-takers as long as we could find a perfect, noise-free testing location with fail-proof network connectivity and buy a brand new up-to-California-Bar-spec laptop just to be safe (which I actually did). No big deal.
But hey, when ExamSoft crashes four times mid-exam (which it did for me), that’s not the California Bar’s problem, right (even though the exact same rampant technical issues occurred last year too).
When I took the bar, my husband rented an Airbnb and took the dog with him for the entire week. We have a three bedroom house, so we simply removed everything from the guest room and wired in with our enterprise-tier Internet access provider. The software crashes aside, I had a pretty cushy time navigating the COVID protocols. I can’t say the same for many of my colleagues.
Then there’s the other astronomical associated costs with taking the bar; yet another disadvantage I never truly faced. Setting aside the insanely expensive fees associated with applying to take the exam (and separately kicking-off a moral character and fitness investigation), commercial bar prep resources (which are practically mandatory if you want even the slightest chance at passing the exam), can run you well over $5k a pop. And of course, that doesn’t account for all of the supplementary resources such as Adaptibar, Smart Bar Prep, books upon books of practice MBE questions, commercial online flashcards, and supplemental commercial lecture videos, (all of which I had the luxury of purchasing in addition to Barbri).
Just like with video games, you can always play the free version, but the “winners” pay-to-play. And put simply, the bar exam is a sport of the affluent.
I think one of the worst aspects of this entire process was watching several of my colleagues suffer through the accommodations charade. We’re not talking about students who just want extra time, rather, I watched students, who received necessary testing accommodations since their first year of law school, have their requests (FOR THE EXACT SAME ACCOMMODATIONS THEY WERE ALREADY RECEIVING) rejected for the bar exam. Not to mention, the process for requesting accommodations imposes an arduous, emotionally draining, and time-consuming uphill battle on the requester all while they’re supposed to be studying for the actual exam.
I suffer from anxiety, but not to the extent where I personally need testing accommodations; another disadvantage I never had to face. Again, I cannot say the same for many of my colleagues.
At this point, it’s not just an unlevel playing field; we’re talking about an entirely different game, and a much easier one at that. It’s sort of like the “Dalgona” Squid Game: many of us get triangles, the rest get umbrellas. But at least in the Squid Game, the players still get to choose.
All of this is to say, these inequalities have far deeper consequences than determining who gets admitted to the legal practice and who doesn’t. In many ways, this is about hand selecting who gets to shape the justice system and the future of policymaking. When the bar exam caters to those of us with majority attributes (like myself), then we will continue to create a legal and regulatory environment that prioritizes the privileged at the expense of the marginalized. We see the same effects result from the patent bar; a system that ensures the field continues to be dominated by male scientists and engineers.
With that, congratulations to all of my colleagues for completing the exam this past summer. Pass or fail, it’s all the same. Passing doesn’t imply intelligence (or grit) and failing doesn’t imply incompetence. No one should have to go through this experience. But I’m proud of all of us for enduring.
The privilege of being an attorney means getting a seat at the table where the rules are made. Instead of creating more rules, let’s think about how we can create more seats.