What to do if you Fail the Ontario Bar Exams


There is a tendency among Ontario law students to be cavalier about the licensing exams. “No one fails!” some assure you. Others conjure pass rates out of thin air: “You know, 90% of law students in Ontario pass the bar. It’s not like New York!” This kind of dismissive attitude around the bar exams is misleading, and makes it especially difficult if you do fail the bar exams because you’re left wondering how you could possibly have failed such “easy” exams after studying so hard.

How many people really fail the Ontario Bar Exams?

Although the LSO does not publish an official pass rate for each sitting of the Ontario Bar Exams, the FLSC does publish an annual report that sheds a small amount of light upon this mystery. The most recently published statistic regarding the pass rate for the Ontario Bar Exams indicates that, in 2012, about 87% of students who were registered to write the licensing examinations were called to the bar over the course of that entire year. What this statistic doesn’t specify is how many times these students had to take the bar before they passed it that year, and how many of the 13% who failed went on to pass the following year. The statistics from 2011 were lower – only 82% were called to the bar – and statistics from 2013 onwards are not yet published.

In short, it is quite common for students to write the bar two or three times before passing. However, it is less common for them to share this information with friends and colleagues, which contributes to the myth that “everybody passes.”

Does failing once mean that my law career is doomed?

Absolutely not. Many high achievers with outstanding careers did not pass their bar exams the first, or even second, time that they wrote. Smart, high-achieving students can fail the Ontario Bar Exams for no discernible reason, even after passing the bar in other provinces or countries. Some better-known examples of people who have failed the bar exam include Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Brian Mulroney, Franklin D. Roosevelt, JFK Junior, and Benjamin Cardozo.

Okay, so what should I do now?

When you first get the bad news, it can be demoralizing. Allow yourself to feel the sadness, anxiety, and disappointment. Taking the exams over is initially going to seem overwhelming, so you need to properly process your emotions before moving forward. Take the time you need to do this, so that you can be in a clear and positive state of mind when you get into gear for the next attempt.

Once you’ve allowed yourself enough time, create a strategy for the rewrite. Figure out if you want to take the exams at the next sitting, or if you prefer to wait for a year. You can look into taking a bar prep course to boost your confidence, and to help structure your studying methods more efficiently.

I’m ready to re-write, what do I need to consider first?

It is important to try and identify your areas of weakness so that you can rectify your study methods accordingly for your second kick at the can. This is easier said than done for the Ontario exams, which rely heavily on strategy and time management rather than knowledge of the materials. However, there are a few common stumbling blocks for students, and chances are that you failed for one of the following reasons:

  1. You didn’t manage your time well on the exam and spent too long on certain questions, which led you to run out of time.

  2. You didn’t read the LSO materials fully (or at all.)

  3. You didn’t take practice tests, so weren’t fully prepared for what to expect or which subjects/types of questions would be most challenging for you.

  4. Your study aids were poor quality, or you didn’t spend time reviewing and practising with them.

  5. Your reading comprehension suffered under the pressure, causing you to skim over important details and not fully understand what the questions were asking.

  6. You were in a poor state of mind for personal reasons, such as illness, family issues, financial issues, anxiety, or grief.

It is important to look after your mental health at this time. Sometimes students fail exams purely due to stress and anxiety. Failing the bar exam will bruise your confidence, and it is important to be cognizant of this so that part of your strategy includes stress-management activities.

Don’t be afraid to seek support from those who can help you.

As mortifying as it might seem, reaching out is a good idea. You’ll be surprised at how many intelligent, accomplished people you know and respect had to take the bar exams more than once. The Ontario Bar Exams might not have the same notorious reputation as the New York Bar, but they are not easy. However, with some help, some strategizing, and some deep breathing, you can and will pass the rewrite.