“Far as draft picks, my name did not get called / Bet before I go I put a billion on the board.” — Jay Z
You just sat and took the bar exam this week. Now the grueling few months of waiting begins. I recently sat in your chair and walked in your shoes. Yesterday, a friend texted me after her third and final day of the bar exam: “Is it normal to feel like I failed the MBE???”
I let her know this was completely normal. Heck, I wanted to puke with anxiety after the third and final day of testing.
Last February, the National Conference of Bar Examiners changed the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), the 200 multiple-choice section, by raising the number of experimental questions from 10 to 25. As with many other things related to the bar nowadays, we have no idea of the reason for the change or whether it has contributed to an even higher failure rate. As ATL editor Staci Zaretsky wrote:
Just when we thought that bar exam performance couldn’t get any worse, lo and behold, the national mean MBE scaled score from the February 2017 has reared its ugly head. Last year, the national mean MBE scaled score from the February bar exam was 135, a 33-year low. This year, that same score is 134, which is the lowest in the history of aggregated MBE results….
While it’s true that the February 2017 exam had a slightly different format — there were 25 experimental questions, rather than the standard 10, meaning that 175 questions were scaled into test takers’ scores instead of 190 — the difference in scores was expected to be negligible.
Last February, more than half of the people who sat for the Texas Bar Exam failed it (51% failure rate) . Even more failed in New York (56% failure rate). Worse yet for Arizona (59% failure rate). Meanwhile, in California, almost two-thirds who finished the California Bar Exam failed it. The results are absolutely abysmal, which has led many people to seek accountability. After all, the system is literally failing its students.
Earlier this week, ATL columnist Lawprofblawg asked, “Who’s to blame?”:
Is it the law schools who admit anyone with a pulse? Is it the bar examiners, who are constricting access to bar admission? Is it the bar prep courses? Why do we even have this thing in the first place?
As reported by Zaretsky, at least in California, it is clear that the bar examiners and their extremely high MBE cut score were culprits in the state’s low bar passage rate:
As it stands, California’s required passing score of 144 is higher than that of 48 other states, with only Delaware’s cut score being higher. For decades, California’s bar exam has been referred to as the hardest in the country, but year in and year out, data has revealed that to be untrue.
With the state’s mean scaled MBE scores continuing to be higher than the national average, it seems that California’s bar exam is simply the most difficult to pass thanks to its arbitrarily high cut score.
In a few months, the results will be released, and the abysmal data will become painstakingly real for a critical mass of you as test takers. With societal expectations, as well as your own, some of you will treat the bar exam results as life or death. As Mel Brooks famously quipped, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
But it is important that you have some perspective. You’ve made it through the grueling process of law school. Now you have to jump through one more hoop to become an attorney. Since its inception, the bar has been through several iterations. So while some older lawyers may have no empathy for recent test takers, my position tends to be a little more nuanced.
Take Michigan’s Bar Exam, for example. In the last decade, if a test taker scored high enough on the MBE, the Michigan State Board of Law Examiners did not grade the essays. In other words, you could pass Michigan’s bar exam simply by doing well on the multiple-choice section.
Then sometime around 2010, the examiners started grading the essay portions as well, no matter how you did on the MBE. Then in 2012, without an explanation or reasonable notice, they re-weighted the exam to make essays count for 50% of the exam. Lo and behold, scores plummeted (and ATL was there to document the carnage). In 2014, the examiners re-weighted the essay portion yet again.
In those three years, the overall passage rate in Michigan precipitously dropped from 80% to 58%, a 22-point decline—from 80% in 2010, to 76% in 2011, to 58% in 2012. Did law students’ aptitude or LSAT scores plummet by that much in three years? No. Yet, the continuing narrative has been how much dumber law students have become. Clearly, the issue in falling test scores is much more nuanced.
When I beat myself up over missed questions in my post-bar mental state (which I don’t recommend by the way!), I often read about others who used their initial failure as a stepping stone, rather than a road block, from sources such as ATL, Buzzfeed, and The Wall Street Journal. The list is long and distinguished, and includes such famous names as John F. Kennedy Jr., Benjamin Cardozo, and FDR.
If you need more reading therapy to soothe you during your few months of purgatory, then you can seek refuge in the words of Rudyard Kipling:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man [or Woman], my son [or daughter]!
Finally, be sure to remember: worrying is like a rocking chair, sure it gives you something to do, but it never gets you anywhere. So do your best to put the bar exam in the back of your mind. Don’t beat yourself up over questions you could’ve answered better.
You have one last hoop to jump through to become a lawyer. Having to retake an exam isn’t the end of the world.
Now go back out in the world and enjoy civilization!