When Failure is Not an Option

By Lisa McElroy and Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who studies mental health issues and disability.  Read Professor Pryal's regular Chronicle of Higher Education column here.

Ask any new law school graduate to name her biggest fear, and you’ll likely receive a predictable answer. She’s afraid she will fail the bar exam.

The fear of failing the bar is ubiquitous among recent law grads; it’s not limited to the 40% or so of law students who live with psychiatric disabilities like anxiety and depression. For that 40%, we can only guess that the summer-long terror of failing to pass the most important exam of their lives is even worse.

Speaking anecdotally, we know what that terror is like. We both live with psychiatric disabilities. We both took the bar exam. When we took it, though, the exam was as much within our control as it is possible for it to be. Way back then, we hand-wrote our exam answers in bluebooks, using yellow No. 2 pencils that we brought to the exam in clear Ziploc bags.

Back then, no one we knew worried that the exam itself would have SNAFUs. We worried about our own failures, not those of the administrators.

Fast forward to July 2014. This past Tuesday, the company tasked with processing the essay portion of most states’ bar examinations failed epically. Perhaps because the company did not anticipate the number of students who would be uploading files simultaneously (how could it not?), its system locked out thousands of test takers, preventing them from submitting their exam answers.

On some law school blogs and websites, bar candidates were reaching out to each other for support. Others took to Twitter using hashtags like #barmageddon to seek camaraderie (often via dark humor). But some of these posts are heartbreaking to read. Here are just a few.

"All I wanted to do after that stressful day was come home and chill out. Instead I spent an hour more stressed out over the bar than I have been at any time including prep and during the test itself."

"I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, literally, and I just want to relax and try to collect myself for tomorrow."

"This is so stressful and I just wanted to review for the MBE tomorrow and relax."

"I need a klonopin."

"This sucks so, so bad. I can’t even put into words the stress."

"Ugh this is so stressful. Examsoft basically freezes every time I try to open it now. It gets stuck on that stupid rainbow pinwheel."

Because these posts were anonymous, it’s impossible to tell whether the applicants involved were merely feeling situational stress or were dealing with mental health crises triggered by Examsoft’s server issue.

The incident made us think more mindfully about the concern we have every year—how the applicants with psychiatric disabilities are coping with the fear of failure.

There are so many hurdles for students with psychiatric disabilities (i.e., mental illness) to jump over in order to even sit down for the bar exam in the first place—the most egregious of which might be the invasive questions that bar examiners ask of examinees in the name of determining “character” and “fitness to practice law.” So these students are already walking into this exam feeling alienated from the entire process because the questionnaire they had to fill out made them feel this way. If they had to ask for any accommodations, that process was likely arduous and invasive as well.

Now, after forking over thousands of dollars and giving months of their lives to studying for just this one multi-day exam that will determine whether they will be able to practice a profession they have been attending school for years to prepare for, the computer system crashed. For some students, this crash is merely stressful. For other students, those who have psychiatric disabilities, walking into days two (and three) of the bar exam were going to be torture. Because of the “fitness” questions, they were already questioning whether the law profession even wanted them. After #barmageddon, they were likely questioning whether they were cut out for it at all.

New law school graduates—if you’re reading this—you are cut out for this. If we could do it, you can do it. You are not alone. And if you are tempted to post on a message board or Twitter where unkind comments might abound, think about posting here, instead. We won’t respond like this:

“Cry me a river. ExamSoft screwed up, but the state bars remedied the situation by extending deadlines. What damages have you suffered? Neurotic anxiety for a few hours? This is why nobody likes law students.”

No, we’ll hear your fear of failure for what it is: real, terrifying, and misunderstood.

Psychiatric disabilities will be misunderstood in law schools (and in the legal profession) until more people speak out and correct misperceptions. The only upside to #barmaggedon? Perhaps it gives many an incentive to start.