I Failed the Bar Exam: Am I Fired?
May 18, 2009 by Sweet Hot Counsel
Q: I think I’m screwed, but please confirm or deny: I’m a second-year associate at a V10 firm and last Fall, I transferred to the firm’s San Francisco office from Chicago. By some miracle, I wasn’t laid off when the firm sacked a ton of associates in January and then I left right after to take the February CA bar exam. And I just found out that I failed it. I didn’t feel like I aced it for sure when I took it, but I didn’t see this coming and literally almost threw up when I found out. Work has definitely been slow at the firm, especially for me since I didn’t really know anyone as a lateral and then disappeared to take the bar exam. Now that I’ve failed it, I’m paranoid that I’m going to get fired. Apparently my firm’s policy is to give a second chance for bar failures, but in this economy, that seems unlikely (and I’m a litigator). Be brutal if you have to: Am I fired?
A: Well, yes. You asked for the brutal version, sorry.
You’re right—most big firms do hand out a one-time Get Out of Jail Free do-over card for bar failures. But you’re even more right that in this crap economy, all bets are off—especially on any sort of perk or practice involving anything even remotely resembling generosity of spirit (or more to the point, wallet). You just gave them—or, rather, the fine state of California just gave them—a perfect excuse to trim headcount without having to scramble for some lame, fake “performance-related” justification. You might as well have threatened the managing partner’s wife with a sling blade at the firm’s holiday party. They’ll say that they think you’re great, and they wish that they didn’t have to, blah blah blah, but they cannot justify employing an attorney, especially a litigator, who doesn’t possess the required credentials to practice law in this jurisdiction blah blah blah. With any luck, you’ll walk away with a few months’ severance. Fight for at least three.
Now, before you get hysterical, keep a few things in mind: One, the California bar exam is crazy, insane difficult—arguably the hardest in the country (chime in, New Yorkers, to disagree). So, don’t beat yourself up too much for failing it—you’re in surprisingly better company that you’d think. Two, if you actually do want to stay at your firm, try to negotiate with them a bit—see if they’ll bump your salary back (well, if they haven’t already) until you pass, or let you work on a contract basis until the next bar exam, or stick you in a non-litigation department. Can’t hurt to ask. If that doesn’t work, just start trolling mid-size and smaller firms and really sell your Big Law experience. And yes, that includes looking for doc review work; you can’t afford to be picky when you’re competing with hordes of laid-off Big Law juniors who are certified to practice in California. In the meanwhile, sign up for the July bar exam (and start studying now, obvs) and think of the next few months as a temporary gig until the Fall—when the July bar exam results come out.
That all said, you’re not fired yet. So, enjoy the Big Law life (i.e. salary) while it lasts, keep your head down and proceed with business as usual. At the very least, collect as many contacts—and office supplies—as you can, and hope for the best.
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