In August 2016, I moved across the country from California to Virginia to begin law school. I began my journey in a cloud of naiveté, convinced that my experience would be somewhere between Legally Blonde and The Paper Chase. A naturally driven person, I’d worked throughout my academic career and wanted to continue my academic journey at the oldest law school in the country. I had no reason to believe that my successes would be any less than they were in the past.
As I sat through my first cold call, a shiver ran down my spine. Not a good shiver, either, but more like a “what the hell have you gotten into?” kind of shiver. As I prepared for my first set of exams at the undergraduate coffee shop, far from fellow law students who suddenly looked like zombie versions of themselves as they rattled off information and attempted to convince their peers their outlines were gold, I wondered who started this “outline” concept and whether it was the most effective way to study. When my alarm didn’t go off on the morning of my first law school exam, I scrambled around my townhome in a panic, trying to remember what I needed for the test. I made it on time and that exam was my best grade of the semester. It felt both arbitrary and weirdly ominous. How could my best score be when I was the most frazzled? Alas, I moved through the first two years of law school in what felt like a constant flux. Sometimes things worked out, sometimes they didn’t. I never knew why or how I got the grades I got because most of the time it felt random. There was a single exam throughout law school that I left thinking, “Yeah, I did well.” That exam was the highest grade in my whole three years. A phrase I repeated over and over to those in my life was: “If law school has taught me anything, it’s to expect the worst.” How jaded I became.
Still, three years passed in what felt like an eternity and a blink of an eye. I struggled a lot, but I ultimately felt grateful for the growth I experienced. I exited the experience a much stronger person than I entered it. Mental health is often discussed when people talk about law school and it’s no wonder why. You take high achieving people, put them in a classroom and tell them to enter the academic equivalent of the Hunger Games. Every class is graded on a curve and some professors make their curve a three-point differential, meaning an A student scored three points higher than a B- student. Add in any other life events, and students are bound to suffer from anxiety or depression or both. The key to making it through relatively unscathed, in my opinion, is finding a core support system that never wavers. It’s also important to remember that while law school is important in teaching you how to think about and articulate legal arguments, law school is not the same as practicing law. Many of the tools and fundamentals you need to practice law are taught in the “real world” far away from the Socratic-method walls of your law school.
To put a finer point on it, how you do in law school matters for getting jobs and bragging rights, but it really doesn’t matter when it comes to the bar exam. Frankly, the courses that I received the highest grades in were some of my lowest scores throughout my summer studying for the bar exam. Contracts? Well, I knew enough for the course’s exam, but I soon realized I knew a fraction of what I needed for the bar. Constitutional law? You mean to tell me, Barbri, there’s more than the commerce clause?! At the end of the day, I felt far more confident studying for and taking the bar exam. The competitive nature of law school seemed so far removed, that I could simply focus on what I was doing and immerse myself in the material. Well, I passed the July 2019 bar exam. Now what?
I posted about passing on my Bookstagram account (@readitilikerory), and a friend commented that she also recently passed her state bar exam, but that she felt like, “now what?” The release that comes with passing the bar exam is almost euphoric. For me, all the stress I bottled up in the months after the exam but before results came pouring out of me. I saw my name on the list of successful applicants and started convulsing, screaming, and crying. I rarely cry when I receive good news. I didn’t cry when I received my dream post-grad job, but the minute I passed the bar, I was ugly crying like you wouldn’t believe. I had a very rocky three years, and more often than not, I felt that my hard work never measured up and that the feelings of inadequacy I experience would never subside. In a matter of moments, it felt worth it. I did what I set out to do. I am a licensed lawyer. So … what now?
Now, I get to enjoy building a career in a place I love with coworkers I admire. Now, I get to enjoy the weekends exploring my new city. Now, I get to read novels and maybe I won’t cringe when I see legalese. Now, I can go to the state Board of Bar Examiners website and not throw myself into a panic attack. Now, I can sleep at night without having nightmares that my computer malfunctioned, and my test wasn’t saved. I get to live my life unencumbered by the stresses that so actively took over my life for months (years, really). I am one of the lucky ones whose name appeared on the pass list.
However, I know not everyone passes their first time. I admire that following the results being posted from various states, a few people posted on social media that they did not pass and expressed immense bravery and vulnerability in doing so. Most admirable, they shared the information to let others who didn’t pass that they were not alone. Law school can be so defeating that the feelings of inadequacy continue to haunt you long after you walk across the stage at graduation. I will say this: the bar exam, like all of law school, does not define you. I have no doubt that those who passed will be great lawyers and I have no doubt that those who will retake it will be great lawyers.
I do not intend this post to come off as though I’m bragging, and I don’t intend to be condescending. Rather, I want to share this because for so long I felt deeply confused by my path and questioned my ability to succeed in the legal world. My dad told me every single day from May until last Friday, “I know you’ll pass.” He believed in me when I often struggled to believe in myself. We often have a tribe rooting for us, and I think it’s so important to lean into that tribe in times of triumph and times of challenge. Whether you are someone who has already taken the bar exam or plan to in the future, remember it’s not the be all, end all. If you pass, great. If you don’t, you can re-take it. The world does not shutter against you after a failure. It hasn’t in the past and it won’t now.
For three years, I documented my experience with law school, culminating in my post “A Final Note on My Law School Experience.” I wanted to be transparent with readers of my blog because the feeling I felt most often was disillusionment. I felt like a lot of people hid the lead on the law school environment. I felt a little duped. I partly blame myself because, after years of law school, I know now that if I was conducting a deposition or a cross-examination, I’d have failed. I didn’t know the right questions to ask and, when you’re dealing with people with legal training, asking the wrong question will only get you a wrong answer. So, again, my struggles with law school are well documented. You can search this blog and read through the tornado of emotions I felt from 2016 to 2019.
This blog has always been a space where I shared information that I wished I had sooner. Throughout law school, I craved transparency. When my friends would stand with me in the parking lot after a particularly brutal class and say, “I’m struggling,” or “Oh I got a B in that class,” I felt a rush for no other reason than I craved moments when people were open and vulnerable. By the same token, I was incredibly hard on myself. When people congratulated me on finishing law school, I thanked them, but I didn’t feel proud. I finished law school with the lowest GPA I’d ever had in my life. By my own self-deprecating standards, I did subpar. Law school can make us oddly shameful because we’re measured against what we could be doing better. The pressure we put on ourselves would be crushed by the support and love those around us feel for us. So, remember to lean into your tribe.
To end, I will say that nostalgia makes us forget that we went through hard times. Now that I passed the bar, I couldn’t care less about my law school GPA. Now that I’m working full time, the flexibility of a law school schedule seemed so nice. Lest I forget the many afternoons I spent crying on the phone. We must remind ourselves where we’ve been so we can envision where we are going. We will all be okay.