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I challenge you to find an attorney in this country who does not have perfect and instantaneous recall of the moment when he or she received his or her bar exam results. For most of us, it was an event ranking in magnitude with birth, First Communion, bar mitzvah, the 21st birthday, graduation, marriage, divorce, or death, or some combination thereof. When it is good, it is very, very good. And when it is bad, it is horrid. In November 1989, when I received my results, the technology was different from today but the emotions were the same. Family fun. In those good old days, bar exam results were not available online, so we eagerly awaited the arrival of the mail carrier. We literally camped by the mailbox. In California, results from the July bar exam traditionally were delivered on the first mail delivery day after Thanksgiving. This meant most of us did not have a Norman Rockwell experience in the 24 hours preceding. Thanksgiving dinner provided a golden opportunity to act out our anxieties along the full spectrum of unwelcome human behavior. My family does not fight (more’s the shame with an excuse like this), but I did manage to sulk through the entire meal, winning newfound respect from relatives who had previously considered themselves world record holders in this area. Waiting for that fateful envelope to arrive. My law school classmates and I had a host of different strategies for the day results were to be delivered. We were in constant telephone communication: “Mailman there yet? Mine neither.” “What does yours look like? I think maybe I saw him getting an espresso at the coffee shop near you.” No matter what their other commitments were, people somehow found ways to be at home when the mail arrived that day. The only possible excuses for absenting yourself from the home watch were major surgery or marriage, in which case you designated a trustee to open your mail and read it to you over the phone. This was a sensitive decision. It could not be anyone with a predilection for practical jokes (for reasons so obvious they do not bear repeating) and it had to be someone before whom you had no pride whatsoever. This precluded your siblings and drinking buddies. Your mother was the obvious choice, but she was generally unwilling to fly in from Maine for the day, so the neighbor chosen to do the honors was given detailed training and deputized for the day. Everyone agreed that it was bad form to attack the mail carrier and nobody wanted to commence their licensure with the commission of a federal crime, so we were studies in self-containment. Furthermore, the mail carriers in Berkeley, where I awaited my letter, knew exactly what day it was, and they carried Mace. Of course, there was endless speculation about whether it was better to receive a small envelope or a big envelope, since it was widely believed that the latter might contain the blue books from your unsuccessful exam. The counter rumor was that everyone received an envelope that was the same size, and you actually had to open it to discover the results. The worst-case scenario: Thanks to the uncertainties of the postal system, your results did not arrive until a day or two after your friends received theirs. The back-up system. If you did not receive your results by mail, you could telephone the bar examiners in those days. This was considered a major technological advance but it required waiting until a day or two after the results were mailed. The bar examiners hotline was jammed because the information was now public and your could find out about other people as well. The phone force had been carefully schooled to reveal nothing other than a Pass/Fail result and you remained alone in the universe despite the fact that you were talking to a live person. The results are in. Once the letters were in hand, we tore them open with an approach identical to what we had perfected over years of opening birthday and Christmas presents. Maintaining the analogy, half of us were quite pleased with the results. By process of elimination, the other half were not. The problem was that friends were distributed among the two halves, and they had to contact each other. In those days we did not really have e-mail or voice mail, the great twin shields against the hazards of actual interpersonal communication. We did have telephone answering machines, however, which made it easy enough to screen calls or, alternatively, to just disappear. Remaining incommunicado had the indirect benefit of causing others to worry about you, perhaps slightly diminishing the joy of others. Reactions to bar exam results can take you by surprise. Responses to bar exam results are difficult to categorize. People who pass express a range of responses — incredulity, elation, ego expansion, relief, and even anxiety about losing the perfect excuse for not finding a legal job. Some people have described a gradual letdown, perhaps as the realization kicks in that successful bar applicants will be practicing law for many years to come. What happens when the news is bad? People who fail the bar exam generally have a difficult time and no amount of humor can or should diminish that reality. Immediate negative reactions include sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, confusion, depression with myriad symptoms, and concern about what to do next. Some people tell their woes to everyone; others clam up and refuse to talk about it. If any general statement is true, it is that everyone experiences a catharsis of negative feelings at some point, often in highly unpredictable circumstances. What should you tell your employer? If you are employed as a first-year associate at the time you receive unfavorable bar exam results, sit down privately with a friend or trusted supervising attorney, vent a bit, and then map out a plan. Do not tell the news to your other colleagues until you come to terms with your situation. Your employer will likely have a standard policy for dealing with this situation, which should reassure you that you are not the only one in this position. If your employer does not have a standard policy, negotiate an arrangement that will allow you enough time to prepare for the next bar exam. What if you are still seeking employment? If you had planned to look for a job practicing law as soon as you passed the bar exam, you will need to work out a strategy that allows you to study for the next bar exam but still provides you with income. You will need to decide whether you want to work in the legal profession or do something else altogether. Some people think it looks better to be able to say they took an extended period off to do other things before practicing law. Others believe it looks better to keep your hand in and work as a researcher or legal assistant. Ironically, over the years students have told me that in tight times in the profession — which we seem to be approaching once again — it can be easier to find a job before you pass the bar exam than after you are licensed. Should you retake the bar exam right away? You will also need to decide whether you want to take a bar review course for the next bar exam — or whether you want to sit at all for the next bar exam. In California, where the bar exam is given twice a year, you must begin formal preparation for the next exam almost immediately after receiving the results from the last exam. You have to make a split-second decision, which can be difficult. My personal observation is that students do better if they retake the exam right away. If you wait too long, your knowledge grows stale and your skills begin to deplete. However, some people just cannot face the idea of turning around and doing it again. If you feel that way, be sure you trust your reaction and get some counseling to find a way to overcome your reluctance before too many exams go by. Reaching out. Whether your results are good or bad, be sure to discuss your reactions with someone who will hear you out. Even if your news is good, you don’t want to sound as if you are bragging or acting egotistical. If your news is bad, people tend to feel that there is a strong risk of saying the wrong thing and it can be difficult for people to respond to you in ways that are helpful. Whatever you do, don’t shut down and suffer in silence. Find someone to talk to, and talk about your emotional state. Then settle down and figure out what you need to do to succeed on your next try. In a few years, no one will remember (or care) whether you passed the bar exam on your first or second try. Good luck! Lois Schwartz received her bar exam results in November 1989 and practiced law briefly before returning to academia. This year she is clerking for Judge D. Lowell Jensen at the U.S. District Court for Northern California and teaching courses at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University School of Law.

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