Legally Speaking: If At First You Don't Succeed

By John G. Browning | Jul 29, 2008

As you read this column, thousands of recent law school graduates across the country will be recovering from taking the legal profession's rite of passage, the bar exam.

For the many fledgling lawyers throughout Texas (including my good friend Robert Bogdanowicz, a recent SMU Law grad), three years of hard work in law school will be for naught if they can't pass the grueling three day intellectual endurance test that is the Texas bar exam.

Heightening the anxiety level for them will be an agonizing wait: results of the summer bar exam won't be released until the beginning of November.

Even though it was nearly 19 years ago, I still remember the exultation and relief I felt when my best friend Mark and I opened those envelopes from the State Bar of Texas and learned that we had passed on the first try.

But what about those who won't get good news in November? Well, for one thing, they'll be in good company. A veritable "Who's Who" of politicians have failed the bar exam.

Hilary Clinton may have come achingly close to snagging the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, but back in the 1970s came no closer to a passing score on the District of Columbia bar exam. The Yale Law School grad and future First Lady and U.S. Senator did, however, pass the Arkansas bar on the first try.

Jerry Brown, former California governor and its current attorney general, failed the California bar exam his first time out before passing. Another governor, Pete Wilson, had an even tougher time with California's bar exam – he flunked three times, before finally notching a passing grade on the fourth try.

Of course, that's still better than another West Coast politico – the Honorable Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, who's taken the California bar four times and has yet to pass (apparently, cheating on your wife with a television news reporter really cuts into your study time).

Other prominent mayors have fared slightly better.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley failed the Illinois bar exam twice, and although Ed Koch failed his first attempt at the New York bar, he went on to pass and eventually become not only New York's mayor, but the judge on the popular syndicated TV show "The People's Court."

New York's bar exam has been a nonpartisan stumbling block. It tripped up the scion of a Democratic family dynasty, when the late John F. Kennedy Jr. failed the Empire State's lawyerly test not just once, but twice in highly publicized fashion as New York City tabloids proclaimed "The Hunk Flunks!"

Republican heirs were by no means immune: Emily Pataki, daughter of former New York Governor George Pataki, failed her first shot at the bar exam.

Sure, coming from a prominent family and graduating from a prestigious law school are no guarantees of scoring a passing grade on the bar exam. But you would think being the dean of one of these prestigious institutions would be indicative of likely success, right?


Kathleen Sullivan had an impeccable legal pedigree. Licensed to practice in New York and Massachusetts, the leading constitutional law scholar had served as dean of Stanford Law School and been mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee for a Democratic administration.

However, when Ms. Sullivan entered private practice as an appellate specialist with the prominent Los Angeles-based law firm Quinn Emmanuel, sterling credentials were unfortunately not enough. She failed the California bar exam the first time she took it in July, 2005 (her luck – or study methods – improved, and Sullivan passed the February 2006 exam).

Besides knowing that plenty of well-known people have failed the bar exam, this year's crop of test-takers can also take heart in knowing that perseverance pays off – eventually.

Remember Joe Pesci's character in "My Cousin Vinnie," who shows up to defend a family member in his first ever trial after finally passing the bar on the sixth try? He's got nothing on Paulina Bandy of Orange County, Calif., who passed the California bar exam last year after failing it 13 times.

Her story began in 1994, when the former marine biologist decided to pursue a law degree at Western State University College of Law. Bandy worked hard, plowing her way through night classes and eventually graduating in 1998 with a "B" average and $80,000 in student loan debt. She applied herself diligently, taking bar review courses, buying study aids, and of course studying for 14-15 hours every day. Her husband, Jon Gomez, began what would become a tradition of buying Bandy flowers after she took the bar exam.

As it turns out, he might have been better off buying a florist shop. Paulina Bandy failed the bar exam 13 times between 1998 and 2007. As the failures mounted, along with her frustration and shame, Bandy began to withdraw into herself.

After the death of her father, the birth of a daughter, and failure after crushing failure, Bandy and her family sank deeper and deeper into debt. Her law school loans, with interest and deferred payments, had swelled to $128,000; and registration fees and the cost of hotel rooms for the bar exam cost approximately $1,000 each time.

"I knew I could do it, but I didn't know what the formula was," said Bandy.

But through it all, Bandy's husband wouldn't let her give up. He drove her to test sites all over California, and encouraged her every step of the way even as financial pressures forced the family to sell most of their possessions and squeeze into a 365-square-foot cottage in the backyard of Bandy's mother's house. Finally, after years of sacrifice and on the 14th try, Bandy got the news she had been praying for on May 25, 2007.

"I screamed. I'll never forget it. I was doubled over like being punched in the stomach. In a good way," she said.

Ironically, after all that, Bandy might not even practice law. Given her ordeal, she's driven to help other "repeaters" pass the bar, and has started a business and Web site,, toward that goal.

For Paulina Bandy, it wasn't the third time that was the charm, but the 14th. I guess that proves that if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try again.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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