Monday, July 25, 2005

Our incoming class of first-year associates takes the Bar Exam tomorrow. There's usually one or two who fail. Pathetic. Most people here pretend it's okay, but it's all for show. You can't really expect to fail the bar exam and then be respected around the office. They're mercilessly mocked, to their faces and behind their backs. They have two months with nothing else to do but study. If they can't pass an exam on the first try, how are they going to do the cutting-edge work our clients demand? You don't get a second chance to file a motion.

Well, you can amend the motion. So you sort of do get a second chance.

Usually, failing the bar is a sign of things to come. No work ethic, lazy intellect, unprepared for life at a big firm. More suited to another line of work. Maybe another service industry. Maybe a paperboy.

But occasionally it's just a fluke. Occasionally someone can be smart and talented and just screw it up, for whatever reason. The questions just happen to hit the areas you're least comfortable with. You lose track of time. The planets align in such a way that on the most important test of your life, you go blank and it all unravels. Or maybe there's a part of you purposely trying to sabotage it, that knows you're not meant for this life, and that wishes you'd reconsider. This is the warning shot. The excuse to escape. You can heed its call, or you can ignore it, take the test again, and go on blindly assuming this is the life for you.

I ignored the call. Very few people here remember this, but I failed the Bar Exam the first time I took it. The day the results were released was without question the most shameful moment of my life. My name wasn't on the list. The managing partner at the time called me into his office and asked if I had an explanation for it, just moments after the names came out, before I'd even had a chance to process what had happened. I told him I had no explanation, but that I would spend the rest of my career trying to make up for it, and to prove that I wasn't like everyone else who failed the exam. That I was different. Something in my eyes must have told him I was serious, and that there was some hidden potential inside of me, because he never again mentioned it. Everyone else did, of course. But I steeled myself to the snickers behind my back and decided this would be the clarion call. Not to rethink my choices but to rededicate myself to this life. I worked my ass off for the next decade to make up for those three days of darkness, never sure I'd fully erased the stigma until I became a partner. Never sure I wasn't just deluding myself into thinking I had a chance to make it here, the same chance as everyone else.

But I was an exception. The rest of them are unfit for this career. No mercy if you fail the test. Especially not from me. You need to spend the rest of your life repenting just like I have, never looking back, never slowing down, never letting it catch up to you. You have to stay one step ahead of your score report, one step ahead of the people who are doubting you, mocking you, laughing at you. I get respect now because I've earned it. Not because I passed a test but because I've lived a life of devotion. Devotion to this firm and this profession. No one can doubt it, given how I started. No one can doubt my commitment, getting as far as I did despite failing the exam.

For thousands of recent graduates, this week is the most important week they have ever experienced. You can have a second wife, another child, a new car... but you never again get to take the Bar Exam for the first time. Don't forget that.

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