The teachers always gave me some version of the same warning back when I was growing up. “You better study hard for this test! Because your score will go on your permanent record!”
I was always very curious about this so-called permanent record. Where do they keep it? What if there’s a mistake? Is there an appeals process? These are not unusual questions to ask, especially if you’re the type of person who ends up going to law school.
Over the years, the dramatic warnings got worse. Especially after I decided to join the legal profession. “Don’t mess up the LSAT, or else you’ll end up poor,” they said. And then after that, “Don’t mess up 1L exams, or else you’ll be unemployed forever.”
The fear was somewhat motivating I guess. But I know for a fact that it wasn’t healthy. It led me to engage in unexpected behavior for a 22-year-old, like staying in on Friday nights to practice logic games. My idea of excitement was scoring an extra point or two on practice LSATs.
But by the time I graduated law school, I’d learned to take these warnings about “the exam that will make or break you” with a grain of salt. I saw how other people overcame bad test results. Bad LSAT score? Kick ass 1L year and transfer or score that Biglaw job. Bad 1L grades? Do a bunch of clinics, network, and leverage your practical experience into a job offer.
It just seemed like there were so many ways to overcome messing any one of these make-or-break tests. Which is why when it came to the bar exam, I ended up overcorrecting. While normal law grads stress out about things like whether they meet the dress code requirement or consider wearing diapers for the exam, I ended up going in the complete opposite direction.
Instead of taking the bar exam seriously, I didn’t care very much at all.
That’s how I ended up failing the New York bar exam on my first attempt. When I found out, I was crushed. Absolutely crushed. That message from all of my old teachers about my “permanent record” that seemed so silly at the time, suddenly became very real.
I thought about disappearing. Maybe I could move to another country and just start over. But if I wanted to keep my job, there was no way I could hide it. I had to tell my firm.
Besides, my law school friends would probably notice my name missing on the pass list. I figured that anyone who heard the news would talk trash about me. Or at least use me as a cautionary tale. “Did you hear about Alex? He’s the first Sullivan & Cromwell associate to ever fail the bar exam.”
It really felt like the worst possible thing that could have happened.
But then something strange happened. The world didn’t end. My friends and family rallied to support me. Not only did I not lose my job, the firm was extremely kind and understanding — which no one should take for granted given how other Biglaw firms sometimes respond.
And then about a month later, I successfully interviewed for a federal clerkship that in many ways I did not deserve. “It happens,” said the judge, dismissing my bar exam results. “It’s really no big deal.”
My judge gave me lots of time to study during my clerkship, which I was eternally grateful for. And there was a happy ending to all this. I ended up passing the New York bar exam on my second try. And then a few years later, I passed the California bar exam on my first try.
Looking back, I’ve come to realize that failing the bar was just like any other bump in the road. It felt devastating at the time, but in retrospect, ended up mattering very little. People will forget. Well, that is, unless you post a viral tweet about it that ends up making it to Above The Law and talk about it on Bloomberg Law’s podcast.
Maybe this is me just rationalizing my failure, but I really do feel like I got a lot out of that experience. I learned an important lesson about humility. I learned to separate my identity from my professional accomplishments. And I learned about my own value to my friends, my family, and my community. Which had nothing to do with me being a lawyer.
Let me be clear. I’m not trying to say that you’re better off failing. If I could go back in time, I’d take my preparation a lot more seriously and do things differently so I’d pass on my first attempt.
What I am saying is this: Failing the bar exam was not the catastrophe that it felt like at the time. It was just a bump in the road. And in the long run, failing mattered a lot less than I expected. How hard I worked, how kind I was to other people, and how seriously I took my craft — all of those things mattered more. Far more than the results of a single test.
So as you all head into the bar exam this week, that’s my message to you. You are more than just your resume. And if you take your preparation seriously, you will be fine. No matter what ends up happening. Because at the end of the day, no single test can make or break you.
You got this.
Alex Su is currently the Head of Community Development at Ironclad, a leading legal technology company that helps accelerate the contracting process. Earlier in his career, he was an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and clerked for a federal district judge. Alex graduated from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where he was an editor of the law review and the student commencement speaker. In his free time, he writes about his career journey and legal tech in his newsletter Off The Record. You can find Alex on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and yes, even Tik Tok.