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YLD’s newest #StigmaFreeYLD video tackles failing the bar exam

Senior Editor Top Stories

MICHELE RAYNER-GOOLSBYPeople who didn’t pass the bar exam on their first try do go on to become incredible lawyers, and it isn’t a measure of how successful you will be in life, according to Ethan Wall, co-chair of the Young Lawyers Division’s Mental Health and Wellness Committee.

Dealing with failing the bar exam is the subject of the Young Lawyers Division’s latest video in its #StigmaFreeYLD Campaign. It’s timely, as the results for law graduates who took the exam in February were released April 13.

“People are already in isolation [because of COVID-19], they’re social distancing, they’re anxious about getting their bar exam results,” YLD President Santo DiGangi said. “This video will show them if they didn’t pass the bar exam, life will go on, you will survive this.”

Clearwater attorney Michele Rayner-Goolsby knows the anxiety associated with not passing the bar on her first attempt all too well.

Santo DiGangi“I just collapsed on the floor and started wailing. I felt like it’s over, everything I worked for is over, my career is over before it started,” said Rayner-Goolsby.

It’s an understandable reaction, Wall said.

“Imagine going to law school for three years, struggling side by side with your colleagues, and then watching all of those colleagues moving on with jobs and going to court and you’re going to be left behind,” he said.

The YLD wants the many recent law students who get that wrenching news to know it’s only a temporary setback. For the most recent exam, given last July, the passage rate was 73.9%.

Ethan Wall“People who don’t pass the bar exam on the first try generally feel a sense of failure, a sense of confusion about where their life is going,” Wall said. “The video will help people understand. . . you’re not alone. During this time people very much feel like they have no one to turn to, and they feel so ashamed and so alone. There are other people who are going through this as well. Your score on an incredibly difficult exam doesn’t measure your worth as a human being or as a lawyer.”

DiGangi said there are many lawyers who have done well and succeeded after failing to pass the bar the first time around.

“The most important thing you can do is reach out to someone,” DiGangi said.

The five-minute video [] features Rayner-Goolsby, a 2011 graduate of Florida Coastal School of Law, talking about the devastation of watching her friends take to social media to talk about passing the bar exam and of the results being publicly posted for all to see. Perhaps more excruciatingly, the letter she got a week later showing she had failed by half a point.

“She was wonderfully active and successful in law school, she took all the bar preparation courses that everyone is supposed to take, and had a job lined up after the bar exam,” Wall said. Instead, Goolsby felt the need to withdraw and hide after the results.

That didn’t last, and she realized, “You’re going to get up, you’re going to study, you’re going to get your mind together.”

Rayner-Goolsby relied on friends and family for support. She talked with a lawyer friend who had also initially failed the bar exam, and she studied with another fellow student who didn’t pass (both passed on the second attempt).

An important boost was Ryner-Goolsby’s prospective employer, 13th Circuit Public Defender Julianne Holt, who agreed to hire her as an intern while she prepared for her second try at the exam.

“That’s really important to emphasize. The public defender who offered Michele her job kept her employed while she was studying as she was preparing for the second try,” Wall said. “A lot of people who go to school may have a job lined up after law school, but it’s contingent on passing the bar exam, and often those who don’t pass have the job offer rescinded. It adds or exacerbates their situation and the impact on their mental health.”

Another important support was tending to her mental health.

“I also had to go to therapy to talk a lot of this stuff out,” Rayner-Goolsby said. “I tell all my lawyer friends they need to be in therapy. Even if you feel like there’s nothing’s wrong, we deal with so much, like we deal with the weight of the world. But you have to put your pride aside to be able to reach out to people and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on.’”

Rayner-Goolsby is now the founder and principal attorney of Civil Liberty Law in Clearwater and among many other civic and local bar activities is a member of the Bar’s 2019-20 Leadership Academy class. Rayner-Goolsby said she decided to participate in the video “because I am proud of my Bar story” and was able to overcome a difficult situation.

“I believe failing the bar made a better lawyer and a better human,” she said.

Wall said the video serves two purposes.

“Not only can we teach others that you can succeed and overcome these things, but more importantly, law firms and others will understand the value of a young lawyer who experiences these things,” he said.

The Young Lawyers Division launched the #StigmaFreeYLD Campaign a year ago to address mental health and illness issues that lawyers have been traditionally reluctant to reveal or discuss. Rayner-Goolsby’s story is the eighth video the division has posted. Wall and DiGangi said the next video will address pressures male lawyers can face when they seek paternity leave, although its release may be delayed because of COVID-19.

“With this Stigma Free YLD program, we wanted to focus on three things: One, stigmas that appear within the profession; two, that had an effect on young lawyers; and three, have an impact on lawyers’ mental health,” Wall said.

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