8 Potential Barriers to Women Taking the Bar Exam

8 Potential Barriers to Women Taking the Bar Exam

By: Megan Kelley          

Women. We can do it all. Apparently, we have to nowadays. From bringing home the bacon, to being the perfect spouse, the perfect mom, the perfect parent, the perfect supportive friend. With all of these responsibilities and obligations, things we do for ourselves often get pushed aside. Our dreams often get put on hold to plan for the future of our families. You have a dream of going to law school and becoming a successful attorney. In order to do this, one test stands between you and your destiny. But not just “one test”…the most ginormous, excruciating “minimal competency” test of your life where you need to dedicate an entire summer or holiday season solely to prepare. Here are some of the most common reasons women do not take the Bar exam.

1. General Health

Sometimes, we fall on hard times in a way we can do nothing about. One of my beautiful law school classmates who would have no doubt been one of the most successful attorneys of our group lost her battle with cancer shortly after we graduated from law school. She studied and stayed with us through the end of Stage 4 Breast Cancer. If she had not lost her valiant fight, we know she would have been taking the Exam the next go around when she felt she was healthy enough to sit through it. Sometimes, the health of your body just prevents you from being able to take a test. Maybe you have to have a surgery you did not plan for. Maybe you have had a skin cancer scare you need to focus on. My Bar Exam coach told us about someone from our school the year before getting into a car accident on the way to take the Bar Exam (lucky for them they were still healthy enough to get through the test both physically and mentally.) Accidents and health concerns happen.

2. Psychological Health

This exam is serious business. Some schools of thought are of the opinion that if you blow it, you have blown your entire career. Some law firms will only hire First Time Bar passers. You have thousands upon thousands in student loan debt, but you are not guaranteed a job. If that is not huge psychological pressure, I do not know what is. One of my mentors in law school and smartest people I knew decided to cut her exam in half. We were in a jurisdiction that allowed you to take one part of the Bar Exam in one administration of the test and the next the following administration (about 5 months apart.) She knew this would limit her job prospects for the year, but she said she had to do this for herself because of the way her mind worked. After seeing her friends pass the first time and becoming licensed months before she could do anything as a licensed attorney, she probably felt like she was missing out on opportunities. Double the test double the stress, she told us in retrospect. But, this tactic worked extremely well for her and she was successful on both parts of the Exam making her a First Time Bar passer in her own right.

3. Pregnancy

I saw this one a couple of times in my 3L year. A female classmate had a wonderful supportive husband working to support their family while she was in law school pursuing her dream of becoming an attorney. The last semester of law school she unexpectedly got pregnant and almost immediately decided to push the Bar Exam back a year while the family acclimated to a larger family size. I am not sure if she ever went back to take the Exam. I know women that have taken the Bar Exam while they were pregnant as well. Each person has to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with and if pregnancy is something that they can press on through (brave ladies!) or if they need to take the break and apply to take the Exam later (that is ok too!)

4. Marriage

The timing has to be right for a romance to fall into place. The timing unfortunately also has to be right to sit for the largest exam of your career. I had classmates who got married right out of or during law school. They both were reaching for the same goal and saving appropriately. But, what about if your spouse is not in the legal field? What if he is in the military and you want to spend that summer with him before he deploys to an unknown land and you do not get to see him for the next year? Sometimes, other things instantly become more pressing than others.

5. Traditional Gender Roles

In a lot of cases, we have seen women support their husband or significant other while the husband or significant other pursues their career first. For instance, the wife who supports her husband through graduate school and then gets sidetracked with his career and a comfortable family life she has established (maybe with children maybe not) and never ends up going back. I have heard many legal administrators tell me they have taken the LSAT or they would go back to law school but life got in the way and they started doing other things. We can only imagine the actual statistic of women who choose to put off putting the final touch on their potential legal career and then by choice or time constraints never end up making it back around.

6. Caring for Elderly or Sick Parents

What about the 24/7 round the clock caregiver? It is almost impossible to adhere to strict study timelines when your day fluctuates and You. Can’t. Help. It. Feeding times, bath times, doctor’s appointments that can’t be missed. A day when an elderly parent is not feeling well and you are unsure of leaving for work or class at all…certainly not for an 8 hour test that will take two days of your time and often require out of town travel and two overnight hotel stays. We may see this issue more with second career students, but I did have a classmate fresh out of undergrad in law school who transferred back to her home state mid-semester because her mother had cancer and needed help. She was fine with putting her schooling on hold because she knew her mother would not be around forever and she needed the help right then. I do not know if she ever finished law school or took the Bar Exam.

7. Parenting/Child Rearing

What if your parents are in great shape for now, but you have responsibilities of your own that always have to come first? What if you are the parent and your child has an emergency or is sick enough where grandma’s house won’t cut it? I had another friend in law school whose son had to have emergency surgery the week of our 3L final exams. She chose to take the Bar Exam anyway because her son would have wanted her to do it after coming this far and being with her every step of her journey. This was the strongest woman I ever met.


Sometimes, your nerves get the best of you. Most of us still get nervous before big court dates. Some people’s nerves cause them to get too much into their heads and subsequently cause them to blow the big test. Some people can find a balance and know how to manage their nervousness where they study day by day or choose to take the test in parts where the jurisdiction allows for it. And, sometimes you just need a break. One more summer off. One more trip before you laser focus in. Some people are on the verge before they take the Bar Exam. Learning to manage stress is the most helpful, but if you have to sit a round out to manage your nerves getting the best of you and you know that is what is best for you, also know that there is a tribe of women who have been in your shoes out there willing to talk and support your dreams however you want to reach them.

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