About a year ago — on July 24, 2019 to be exact — I found out I failed both Ontario bar exams. Before I even received my official results, I knew I hadn’t passed the Solicitor exam. I remember writing the real estate segment and knowing it was game over. I’m not going to get into the specifics of how I incorrectly prepared for this first sitting of exams. Maybe that’s a post for another day. This past year has tested me (no pun intended) and I’ve learned a great deal.

Failing the Barrister and Solicitor exams has brought me a great deal of shame and embarrassment. I’ve isolated myself from my peers and even many friends in the fear that they would find me out and uncover this heavy weight I’ve been carrying. I have been afraid of what people would think about me and say about me, how people might doubt me and my abilities and how most would not understand the anguish I have experienced throughout this licensing process.

The Barrister and Solicitor exams are two open book exams which test candidates on select black letter law and professional responsibility. When I wrote these exams, each exam was 7 hours and 240 multiple choice questions. (Due to Covid-19, the length and number of questions on the exams has since been reduced). These exams are a search and find exercise, written under strict time constraints. I am of the firm belief — and I don’t believe I am alone in this thought — that these exams do not accurately test or reflect one’s competence or minimum skill level for entrance to the legal profession. While I hold this belief steadfast, these exams and this process have left me gutted, broken and without any faith in myself or my abilities to be a lawyer.

The legal profession leaves little room for error. Admitting a failure such as this, to my peers, my friends and the world has continuously felt like too much to bear. In law, and in general, we are so quick to tout “the top 30 under 30” or “the rising stars” of the profession. While these “stars” are deserving of these recognitions, the legal profession tends to erase, or encourage the erasure of any personal failings that could make one seem “lesser than” their peers and colleagues. I’ve found failing the bar, especially in Canada where it appears to be far less common (and less reported on) than in our neighbouring USA, to be extremely lonely and at times, this loneliness has been debilitating.

I made the decision to re-attempt both bar exams during my articling year. I was determined to get licensed “on schedule,” in June 2020 with my peers. I spent the fall studying for the Barrister exam which I wrote in November 2019. About five weeks after re-writing the Barrister exam, I found out I had passed. I finally felt some of the crushing weight of this process lift off my chest.

In my experience, the Ontario licensing exams are heavy. They are dense in content, rule your life as you prepare for the exams and leave you anxious during the indeterminate waiting period before candidates are sent their results.

After taking the month of December off from studying, I began the new year by preparing for my rewrite of the Solicitor exam. For me personally, the Solicitor materials were daunting and less intuitive than the Barrister materials. Nearly everyday at work, I would try to carve out a lunch break to consume as many pages of the materials as possible. Preparing for this exam was physically and emotionally draining. I longed to be done studying and done with this process.

As the exam grew closer and COVID-19’s global presence grew larger, the regulator assured candidates multiple times that the Solicitor exam would take place as scheduled on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. I continued to prepare vigorously for the exam until Friday, March 13 at 12:25pm. At the time, I was just sitting down for my regular mid-day 45 minute study session at a secret sanctuary I discovered close to my office. Receiving news of the cancellation — four days prior to the exam — left me numb. It was like reaching mile 25 of a marathon and being told there actually wasn’t a finish line.

As I collapsed on my couch at home that evening, I thought of all of the hours I had devoted to studying and all of the opportunities for joy and adventure I had turned down in order to prepare for the exam. While understanding the gravity of the unprecedented pandemic taking place, I couldn’t help but feel robbed of my opportunity to write the exam; to release my body and my mind from the crushing backpack of shame and stress I’d been carrying for so long. I spent the weekend reeling. I don’t remember leaving the couch.

Following the cancellation of the exam, one of the worst parts was not knowing when I’d have the opportunity to write it once and for all. For a moment, I allowed myself to relax; to watch TV without guilt, to sleep in on weekends, to turn my mind off. But at the same time, the exam was always looming. It was a dark cloud that followed me everywhere, at all times. I knew it was only a matter of time until I would have to return to studying in full force and the full weight of the exam would again begin to suffocate me.

The gripping loneliness of this process made navigating my personal and professional relationships challenging. I wouldn’t have endured without my cherished support network who granted me an abundance of patience and grace. I am grateful to my close friends who held me up throughout this process, or as I refer to it, my losing season. I am grateful to my parents who answered many distraught phone calls and flew from Winnipeg to Windsor to help me see this process through. My mother uprooted her life to spend two weeks taking care of me in the fall and three weeks with me in the winter as I prepared for the exams. My dad swooped in to “take me over the five yard line” and drove me a combined eight hours to and from the test site in November and was prepared to do it all over again in March.

Most of all, I am grateful for my dear friend who endured the same lengthy and stressful process of rewrites. I would never wish this year we shared on anyone, though I am so grateful to have had this friend by my side as we motivated each other to make it over the finish line. Unless you have carried the weight of failing both bar exams and studying for the bar for over a year, it is hard to understand the extent to which this process can impact your life. Having my friend alongside me on this treacherous journey meant that I had one person who truly understood, and being understood helped me feel less alone.

The March exam was eventually rescheduled to take place online in June. I once again began rigorously preparing for the exam and during this time, I stumbled upon a quote which I wrote down and posted above my desk. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” There were countless times in this past year when I have confused this singular defeat with a final defeat; I’m working on unlearning this notion.

I have been shaped, but not defined, by spending April 22, 2019 (the date the bar materials were released) to August 11, 2020 (the date I found out I passed the Solicitor exam) carrying the stress of the bar exam on my chest, in my shoulders and in my mind. Wearing this invisible scarlet letter broke my sense of self worth and dimmed my light. But as I rise up from this experience, I am able to look back and humbly admire my grit, resilience and determination to see this through. I have been broken, but I am wiser as a result. It might take me a little while to shine my light again, but when I do, I have faith it will lead me on a brighter path. 

I have let the shame of this secret rule my life for far too long.