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You Can Fail the Bar Exam and Still Have an Awesome Career

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

People who want to be famous attorneys are generally uncomfortable with failure. That goes double for the bar exam.

But the exam is looming, and that means extra helpings of stress. It doesn't help that law school graduates are generally competitive, over-achieving, and just this side of obsessive when it comes to success.

Sure, everyone says it's not a big deal if you fail the bar. It's not the end of the world, other people fail, and you can take it again. You're still a smart person if you don't pass on your first try.

Where's the evidence, you say? We've got your evidence right here.

People who fail the bar exam on their first, second, heck even on their 10th try are not doomed to career failure. They're pretty awesome -- and by that we mean awe-inspiring. Here are just a few examples:

  • Kathleen Sullivan, the former Dean of Stanford Law School and name partner of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, failed the California Bar the first time. That was after she had argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in several cases.
  • Michelle Obama, former first lady and organizer of the "Let's Move!" campaign, failed the Illinois bar on her first try. She went on to be an associate at Sidley Austin LLP, where she fell for a cute summer associate named Barack, before moving on to community work. Now she's all kinds of important.
  • Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, failed the District of Columbia bar before passing the Arkansas bar. Before her impressive political career, Ms. Clinton was the first female partner at Rose Law Firm, the first female chair of the Legal Services Corporation, and was twice listed as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America.

Lest you think only women fail the bar, we have some gentlemen who didn't make it on the first go-round either:

  • John F. Kennedy Jr. might ring a bell as a fairly important public figure. He failed the New York bar exam twice before he got it right. After that he went on to serve as a New York District Attorney for four years before starting his own magazine.
  • Kevin D. Callahan's story will definitely give you hope that there is life after failing the bar. He took the Massachusetts bar exam and failed it 10 times before he finally passed. Callahan then took a job as an assistant District Attorney and eventually started a successful private practice. He even ran for District Attorney in Cape Cod in 1998.

We're not saying failure is pretty. But it does happen, even to smart and successful people who go on to be famous. So don't sweat it, you can still be amazing no matter your MBE results.

Editor's Note, February 22, 2017: This post was first published in July 2012. It has since been updated.

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