Threat from above, or, why the bar exam feels like an asteroid

Well, another round of July bar exam fun is officially over, except for those folks taking the bar in Louisiana. There, I’m told by my friends at Wikipedia, the idiosyncratic schedule is Monday-Wednesday-Friday of the last week of July, rather than the more-typical Tuesday-Wednesday. Louisiana’s lack of consecutive-day timing results, I would imagine, in a few more sleepless nights, rather than soothing, healing mental-health days.

Why? Because the bar exam inevitably inspires dread, regardless of the chance, or lack thereof, that an individual examinee will not pass. At Michigan Law, only a handful of people fail—or, as our indefatigably upbeat registrar puts it, are “less than fully successful”— in a given year. Rather than inspiring confidence, citing that fact to someone studying for the bar results in a panicked and/or aggrieved reaction. The attempt at reassurance is inevitably viewed as some kind of hostile gesture—a curse, as if you are knocking the wood of their scalp not as a mystical protection but as an assurance of a disastrous outcome.

Indeed, although much is made of the fact that one problem with educating would-be law students about the potential perils of the legal marketplace is the human tendency toward optimism, the bar exam seems to inspire a contrasting phenomenon. Rather than confidently viewing themselves in the top 10% of their prospective cohort, law graduates are all too confident that any small chance of failure is for them a virtual certainty.

That perhaps has something to do with the risk-aversion juice that we put in the IV drips around here, but I think it is also a natural reaction whenever a particular outcome, however remote and unlikely, seems apocalyptic. And that’s how I made the connection this morning between the bar exam and asteroids, while listening to a past-due podcast about a New Yorker article. (I’m on vacation and catching up, while on long early-morning walks, with everything in my iTunes queue. I’m only about two months behind at this point.) As the author put it, “It’s hard to know what to do about threats that are statistically small. In terms of a really big rock coming and hitting us, it is statistically very tiny. On the other hand, if it did, you know, a really big one that’s been hiding behind the sun could wipe out the entire planet, and there we go. And so it’s maybe worth trying to think about some way of, you know, protecting us against it.”

Indeed, there we go. It seems downright irresponsible, when you’re engaged in bar-exam preparation, not to worry—a karmic taunting. Worrying is just one more item on the study to-do list. (But of course, the really important thing is to use the right bar exam prep materials.)

In any event, let’s just keep some perspective. Not passing the bar is not the equivalent of having all life on Earth wiped out by a passing asteroid, apart from the fact that both events are statistically unlikely. (The asteroid is, concededly, more unlikely. But that’s actually good news, when you think about it. Again, perspective.) You can always re-take the bar, unpleasant as that may sound. But even in the event of that worst-case scenario, keep this in mind: It will be several months before you have to think about it. So try to switch back to your pre-law-school self, with your optimism and confirmation biases, and relax. Unless you’re in Louisiana, in which case, worry just a smidgen longer.

-Dean Z.
Assistant Dean for Admissions
and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies