Teachers always gave me some version of this same warning when I was growing up. “You better study hard for this test! Because your score will be on your permanent record!”
I’ve always been very curious about this so-called permanent record. Where do they keep it? What if something goes wrong? Is there an appeal process? It’s not an unusual question to ask, especially if you’re the person going to law school.
Over time, the dramatic warnings have gotten worse. Especially after I decided to join the legal profession. “Don’t screw up the LSAT, or you’ll be poor,” she said. After that, “Don’t mess up the 1L exams, or you’ll be unemployed forever.”
Some degree of fear I guess. But I know it’s not healthy. This led me to engage in unexpected behavior for a 22-year-old, like practicing logic games on Friday nights. My idea of excitement was getting an extra point or two on the practice LSATs.
But by the time I graduated law school, I had learned to take these “the test will make or break you” warnings with a grain of salt. I saw how others overcame bad test results. Bad LSAT score? Hand in or score that biglaw job for the 1L year kick. Bad 1L grades? Leverage a range of clinics, networks and your practical experience into a job offer.
It seems that there are many ways to overcome the mess in one of these make-or-break tests. That’s why I overcorrected when the bar exam came. When pressed about things like whether typical law graduates meet dress code requirements or consider wearing diapers to the exam, I went in the exact opposite direction.
Instead of taking the bar exam seriously, I didn’t pay much attention.
That’s how I failed the New York bar exam on my first try. I was devastated when I found out. Totally crushed. That message from my old teachers about my “stable record”, which seemed so silly at the time, suddenly became very real.
I thought about disappearing. Maybe I can move to another country and start over. But if I want to keep my job, there’s no way I can hide it. I had to tell my company.
Also, my law school friends might notice that my name is missing from the pass list. I thought the news listeners would talk dirty about me. Or use me as a warning. “Have you heard of Alex? He is the first Sullivan & Cromwell associate to fail the bar exam.
It really seemed like the worst thing that could happen.
But then something strange happened. The world didn’t end. My friends and family rallied to support me. Not only did I not lose my job, but the firm was extremely kind and understanding – something no one should take lightly considering how other Bigelow firms sometimes react.
About a month later, I successfully interviewed for a federal clerkship That I am not worthy of many things. “It happens,” the judge said, rejecting my bar exam results. “It’s really no big deal.”
My judge gave me a lot of time to study during my clerkship, for which I am forever grateful. All this had a happy ending. I passed the New York bar exam on my second try. A few years later, I passed the California bar exam on my first try.
In retrospect, I realized that the bar would fail just like any other bump in the road. It seemed devastating at the time, but in retrospect, it ended up being very little. People will forget. Well, that is, unless you post one A viral tweet Reaches Above the Law and talks about it on Bloomberg Law’s podcast.
Maybe it’s me rationalizing my failure, but I feel like I gained a lot from that experience. I learned an important lesson about humility. I learned to separate my identity from my professional accomplishments. And I learned about my own value to my friends, family, and community. It has nothing to do with me being a lawyer.
Let me be clear. I’m not trying to say that you’re better off failing. If I could go back in time, I would have taken my preparation more seriously and done things differently so that I would have succeeded in my first attempt.
Here’s what I’m saying: Failing the bar exam wasn’t the disaster it seemed at the time. There were only bumps in the road. In the long run, the failure rate is much lower than I expected. How hard I worked, how kind I was to other people, how seriously I took my craft – all these things mattered more. Much more than the result of a single test.
So as you all head into the bar exam this week, that’s my message to you. You are more than just your resume. If you take your preparation seriously, you will be fine. No matter what happens in the end. Because at the end of the day, no trial can make or break you.
You got this.
Alex Xu is currently Head of Community Development at Ironclad, a leading legal technology company that helps accelerate the contracting process. Earlier in his career, he was an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and clerked for a federal district judge. Alex graduated from Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law where he was editor of the Law Review and student commencement speaker. In his spare time, he writes about his career journey and legal techniques in his newsletter Off the Record. You can find Alex TwitterInstagram, LinkedIn, and yes, even Tik Tok.