How To Support An Employee Who Has Failed The Bar Exam

How To Support An Employee Who Has Failed The Bar Exam

Few things wreak havoc on a legal work environment like someone in the office failing the bar exam. When a student receives the disappointing news that they have failed the bar exam, they go through so many emotions from anger to sadness and everything in between. There is an extra layer of pressure and complication that comes with failing the bar exam when a student is employed. They are worried about losing their job, having difficult conversations with their supervisor, and generally being embarrassed in front of the entire office.

I won’t pretend that every person who fails the bar exam wants to be treated the exact same way, but from years of seeing this exact situation handled poorly over and over again, here are some ideas on how to get it right.

1- Determine your needs

Once you find out that one of your team members has failed the bar exam, it is important that you take some time to figure out how this impacts your organization. The team member will likely be upset for a while. Then, once he or she starts studying again, he or she will likely be distracted and tired. You need to think about how these things will affect the entire office environment and how you want to mitigate the impact (i.e., by giving the student time off). If you skip this crucial step, you may over promise and under deliver on the level of support you can provide.

2- Have an open conversation

Dave Ramsey says, “to be unclear is to be unkind.” This is so very true when it comes to employers communicating about the bar exam. Many times employers don’t directly address someone who has failed the bar exam, they don’t talk to them about the plan to study again, and don’t talk about the potential consequences of failing the bar exam a second time. A failure to clearly communicate on these issues can cause tremendous  anxiety for your team member. You can help to alleviate this by proactively reaching out to the team member to set up a meeting. In the meeting, clearly and directly communicate any policies or procedures surrounding his or her retaking of the exam.

3 -Don’t shame them or make them feel guilty

While you are having this conversation, make sure that you aren’t piling onto his or her distress. If you’re reading this article, you probably aren’t the type of person who would willfully make someone feel bad. But, I assure you, they couldn’t possibly feel worse or more guilty than they already do about failing the bar. You can’t be too empathetic when talking to them about their experience.  Make sure that any questions you ask don’t sound accusatory or would be likely to make him or her feel as if you are blaming them. There probably isn’t much you can say that will make them feel better, but I assure you that there are many things you can say to make them feel worse.

4-Ask them what they need

Don’t assume that you know what will be helpful to your team member as they gear up to prepare for the bar exam again. And, don’t assume that they will come to you to tell you what they need. Students are often scared to ask for things because they don’t want to lose their job and are afraid to be an inconvenience. Often, he or she will try to act tough and ask for too little. Encourage him or her to be open and honest about what they need to be successful. Even if you can’t give them everything, you may be able to compromise and give him or her more than what you otherwise would have thought to if you hadn’t asked.

5- Offer them time off to study again

Of all the ways you can support a team member through failing and retaking the bar exam, allowing him or her to take time off should be at the top of the list. It is the most important thing for most students. Give him or her as much time as you reasonably can, keeping in mind that 4-6 weeks would put him or her in the best position to be successful.

However, it is not just about allowing him or her to take the time off, you also have to leave him or her alone. I know this can be hard, but in order for all the time off to be worth it you have to keep your emails, calls, and texts to a minimum. He or she will prioritize work, so every work related distraction keeps him or her one step further away from the goal.

Finally, if you can afford it and are really invested in your team member, make the time off paid.  Students stress so much about money during bar prep because they are often investing in additional resources such as coaching. Relieving some of this pressure for him or her will make the time off even more effective. Remember, you liked this person enough to hire over all other potential candidates for the job. This small, short-term investment  will pay off ten-fold over the course of his or her career with you.

Even if you never had the experience of failing the bar exam you can’t go wrong if you use the cardinal rule to think about how you would like to be treated in the same situation. This is a difficult situation for everyone involved, but with a little thought and planning everyone can make it through with their dignity Finally, I can almost guarantee that your team member will never forget the kindness and support you extended, so  when he or she comes back from bar prep, he or she will be ready to work even harder on behalf of your mission.


Kerriann Stout is a millennial law school professor and founder of Vinco (a bar exam coaching company) who is generationally trapped between her students and colleagues. Kerriann has helped hundreds of students survive law school and the bar exam with less stress and more confidence. She lives, works, and writes in the northeast. You can reach her by email at [email protected]

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