Op-ed: Re-taking the bar exam and the law of detachment

Bar exam re-takers are not like first time takers, but not because they are less capable. In fact I find the opposite to be true. Many of these students are exceedingly bright, textured and unique people. For the purposes of the exam prep process, they are different simply because they have the indelible experience of not passing, sometimes a few times. The “failure” creates a wound. When I get them, I often find that the wound is the chief characteristic leading the preparation for the next effort. Because the wound is leading and not the several other qualities that make up an accomplished student, re-takers often lose contact with their self-reference of competence and success.

Re-takers are my people. Most of them come to me by referral from some other previously embattled student who has since taken and passed the bar under my tutelage. I have a reputation for my ability to nurture. I am a bit like the Statue of Liberty of bar tutors: “give me your tired, your worn . . .” and so on. I also have an understanding of how little this exam relates to a person’s worth or intellectual abilities. Nearly every re-taker I have ever taught not only can pass, but can pass well.

Why does “passing well” matter? Because with little exception, every re-taker usually shows up to me for the February exam, singing the same refrain: “I only failed by X (small margin) points,” and that small margin is torturous. Many of their friends are celebrating, and are really rather impressed with themselves. Without skipping a beat, passing bar takers assume an immediate air of superiority. It’s bred into the lawyer psyche, remember, it started in law school? And they march right in line with their forefathers. Nothing will divide a margin of passing and failing bar students like the deep exclusion one feels after not making it into the club. But I assure you, the margin is not as wide as you perceive. In fact, it’s so nominal as to be indistinguishable but for your profound heartache.

The first and most important discussion I have with re-taking bar students is that the small margin of failure is not really meaningful because the large majority of passers also passed by an equally small margin. Taking the standard scale of distribution, very few students totally bomb to the left of the scale and as many to the right rarely nail it. Instead, most students fall right in the middle and the margin that divides those who pass and those who fail is so small as to be without meaning. Which means that if those friends who passed knew the small number by which they achieved their greatness, they would be horrified and not so eager to rub their success in the faces of their less fortunate friends. Passing well has purpose to the vulnerable re-taker because they never want to skirt that center margin again. My goal is to get them far enough right of center to have ease about passing.

If a student didn’t pass, and the margin of failing versus passing is virtually indistinguishable, my job is to convey to them how little of who they are had to do with the exam result. Instead, it’s more about what they did in preparation. Basically they did the wrong stuff. It’s really just that simple. That comes as relief to all of my students. Doing the wrong stuff is much better to swallow than being a worthless human without a right to practice law. By the way, many “friends” who are eager to share their success strategies also did the wrong stuff. Refer back to the paragraph about small margins of success. So do not listen to them: 1) because they don’t know what they are talking about, and 2) because it’s terribly dispiriting to be schooled by an equal. Your spirit now is your primary concern because your spirit is the most injured part of you, and not your brain or your intellect.  If a student does not reconcile the wound, the wound will lead the next effort. 

I never even enter into a discussion about the mechanics of bar prep with a re-taking student without tending to the pain of not passing. That work is pointless until the student settles the injured soul. The next step is to introduce students to the idea that controlling the process, unlike so many other aspects of a high-performer’s life, is not the goal, though controlling the work is not only a goal but absolutely promised once the real tasks are revealed. As to the daily emotional struggle in the process, it's better to allow that to unfold without attempting to dominate every feeling, fear or anxiety. Instead, submission or accepting a degree of powerlessness is ironically more empowering. Anyone who has any spiritual inclination has heard of the notion of “non-resistance.” It is a central tenet to practically every spiritual realm. I don’t ask you to affiliate with any spiritual belief system, just to accept the larger truth that energy spent in any form of non-acceptance is totally wasted and inefficient energy. As Chin-Ning Chu wrote in “Do Less, Achieve More”: “When you are doing any task with great anxiety, it takes a tremendous effort to realize a meager result.”

Resistance, or energy spent pressing against an outcome, is wasted and inefficient energy. For math and business types, this can be known as the Law of Diminishing Returns. If spiritual notions are off-putting, consider the psychological corollary called “denial.” I prefer to see it from a spiritual plane. Deepak Chopra wrote, “In detachment lies the wisdom of uncertainty . . . And in our willingness to step into the unknown, the field of all possibilities, we surrender ourselves to the creative mind.” The point here is not to give up the thing you want, just give up attachment to the result. Or, as I put it, “just do the work and let me worry.”

The truth is, the exam process is difficult and hard to contain in neat boxes. It has unpredictable elements. It exploits weaknesses in the psych and the spirit. Knowing that is liberating. My advice to re-takers: Do the work and don’t attach meaning to how you feel in the process. Constantly checking how afraid you are that your efforts are not working or that you will not pass will not bring about better success odds and will create barriers to performance. I don’t mean to say you will not have fear, or cry, or replay the past unsuccessful experience, I just mean that you should not attach any meaning to those feeling as truth. Anyone who has studied meditation knows that the first step to “letting go” of negative thoughts is not to achieve a blank mind but to have thoughts and simply let them float by. Really, just have the feelings. It will happen in the process often. But that does not make those feelings true. Ascribing truth to fear is what elevates fear to something that affects your work.

So many times a student will tell me, two weeks in: “I’m not getting any better at doing these MBE questions.” Two weeks in! How can you be better at the alternate universe of MBE’s in two weeks? It takes months! It does not matter that you did them before. You did them the wrong way. I am always so amazed at the erroneous but really harmful conclusion that students make about how they are progressing. MBE progress, and the bar exam process in general, is not a straight upward trajectory. It happens in layers. It evolves and devolves, and does not usually really get predictably better until the end. Fear of non-progress is natural, but not necessarily true. You can re-write the experience and have exactly the result you desire, but it takes discipline — not in toil, but in emotional clarity and a commitment to leaving the failed attempt behind. No successful renewed effort can be premised on a foundation of failure. You might be surprised that you are actually afraid to let that go, but you must.

All of this leads me to an unexpected conclusion for re-takers: Allowing yourself to truly submit to this process and detach from your fears and expectations of results will bolster your results, and in many ways will make your struggle more meaningful. That extra layer of humanity is a gift you will be able to offer your clients when your "Congratulations" letter comes in.

Debbie Sanders is a lawyer and bar exam coach, and is the owner of Bar-None Prep, where she teaches a bar exam preparation method aimed at creating a methodical and predictable approach to the exam while placing an emphasis on the spirit and well-being of the person taking the exam. She is also an author and writes essays regularly featured on Success.Com. She s currently writing a book entitled “The Spiritual Path to Passing the Bar," based on her experiences teaching thousands of bar exam students for over 15 years.