By Jannet Matthew • June 27, 2018•Careers, Other Career Issues, Law School, Other Law School Issues, Issues, Other Issues, Features, Advice on Passing the Bar Exam
Lessons and Realities from the Pass List
Let’s get housekeeping out of the way. If you read my last post you know I took the California February bar exam and I was waiting for my results. So here’s the update: I didn’t pass.
I sat on my living room floor with my laptop on my thighs. After navigating to the Cal Bar website, I carefully typed in my applicant number. Then my file number. I scrolled through and didn’t see my name on the pass list so I refreshed the screen. Again, I very carefully typed in my applicant number. Then my file number. Nothing. My heart finally sank on my third and extremely careful entry of my applicant and file number. My name wasn’t on the pass list. I thought I would cry but I have no emotion left to give this exam. I took about five minutes to just process and then it hit me: I HAVE TO STUDY AGAIN?!?!?! I just don’t have it in me! I don’t wanna do this, I just don’t care ...just some of the thoughts that flowed through me at that moment.
It’s been about four weeks and I’ve been doing some research on retaker strategies, reading relatable blog stories, coming across disappointing information, and reflecting. The first draft of this post was all about my big takeaways from my experience, which include coming to terms with the fact that life goes on and it’s important I stay focused on the ‘big picture.’ But then I thought, why not write about what’s REALLY bothering me and something I don’t think is discussed enough: for those of us who don’t have cushion-y backgrounds to help support us while we attack this exam, life during this transition - from, J.D. to Esq. - is painful, poverty-stricken (this sounds dramatic but it’s how I feel), and seemingly never-ending.
There are graduates who have the luxury of not having to worry about simple-people-problems like paying a car note, insurance, and rent, just to name a few. If this is or was you, give praise and be grateful because, for those of us without that luxury, this time is extremely challenging.
We place so much emphasis on the first time. Daily, we pour nine to 12 hours of everything we’ve got into studying for two months, during which time we’re not supposed to do anything but eat, sleep, and breathe bar prep. But what happens when you don’t pass and life is still happening at you? Life is still requiring you buy food, put gas in your car, pay for laundry detergent, slip in the occasional mani-pedi, buy feminine products, etc. For some time now, I haven’t felt comfortable putting any financial pressure on my family unless it's an emergency, mostly because they have just enough to get by. For some context, they pulled their extra funds together so I can sit for the exam a second time. It hurts me to see them scraping monies together to help me. They do so happily but it still sucks. I’m 28 years old and ten years ago I thought I would have it all figured out by now - what a laugh. My point is, the final chapter of my legal education isn’t just about me taking an exam, it’s also about my family’s ongoing sacrifices to help me arrive at the biggest stepping stone of my life.
The discomfort, stress, and exasperation I’m feeling right now, and many others similarly positioned, speaks to the assumed wealth on the path to higher education. Most students who have graduated from law school are most likely not working and haven’t been for the last three to four years. Once we graduate there are some post-graduate options for student loan funding, but many of those private options aren't available to those of us who don’t have viable cosigners - i.e. me. And let’s not forget about those who don’t even have the option of living with family to save on living expenses. Everyone is affected differently.
Sadly, the financial requirements are enough to deter any high school or college student with dreams of becoming a lawyer. Knowing it would be too much of a financial burden for their families to carry. From LSAT to the bar exam and everything in-between. I don’t have numbers to back me up, but I’m willing to bet this has a great deal to do with the underrepresentation of Black and Brown minorities in the legal profession - generally, we don’t even have the wealth to start the training, let alone get through it and finish it!
So to tie this all together, we have little to no savings because we haven’t been working, we can’t apply for private loans because we don’t qualify, and we’re not supposed to work because we must once again put our lives on hold for this exam. Not to mention that qualifying students usually come from families who don’t need the financial assistance to begin with. I feel the state of the legal education system is a twisted manifestation of the capitalist proverb, “you need money to make money;” pursuing higher education is truly a risky investment and you have to be smart, resilient, and creative in the current job market to get a worthwhile ROI over time. But fundamentally, I’m upset at the idea that a legal education and bar card aren’t tools for self-determination and social good, but instead just another set of tools to keep perpetuating the hyper-competitive paradigm we exist in. I guess the legal profession isn’t immune to the chokehold of capitalism, forcing new graduates to make decisions based on survival and not personal fulfillment.
I’ve been job hunting since April to no avail. I’ll admit, it has distracted me from studying, but not any more than the stress from the inability to pay my bills. It’s simply not realistic for me to keep living without financially supporting myself so it’s been a challenge finding a position that will be flexible with my needs, pays decently, and is willing to train. I thought I would easily get a job as a legal assistant or clerk but ironically, the law firms I keep running into want employees who are ready to go and require minimal training. I don’t fit into that category. I have limited practical experience and now I feel desperate because I’m broke, frustrated because law firms won’t hire me, but also confused because I don’t want to perform the duties of a paralegal or law clerk. I know I sound like a spoiled millennial but that kind of work is incredibly boring to me. There. I said it. So, my game plan is to keep looking for flexible entry-level or J.D. preferred positions and hope I find the perfect gig where I can work until I finally get my bar card, or keep in case I need to retake the exam next February - I’m not being pessimistic, just taking precautionary measures.
Ultimately, I hope I pass on my second try; I’m studying, keeping my mind grounded, and striving for balance. But I’m also taking steps that will support my success in life, not just in my career. Yes, passing the bar exam and becoming an attorney is the big-picture but I have to live my life today and that means making sustainable decisions. For some, thinking about working while studying for the bar exam is a non-option but for me, that is the only option and I have no shame in saying that sometimes, thriving today takes priority over living tomorrow.
See ya next month!