Fact Check

Hillary Clinton Failed D.C. Bar Exam

Hillary Rodham did not succeed in her 1973 attempt to pass the District of Columbia bar exam.

Published Mar 17, 2015

Hillary Rodham failed her 1973 attempt to pass the District of Columbia bar exam.

In 1973, in between the time she first began dating fellow Yale law school student Bill Clinton in 1971 and finally agreed to marry him in 1975 (after turning down an earlier proposal), Hillary Rodham graduated with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Yale, sat bar exams in Arkansas and the District of Columbia and worked with Marian Wright Edelman's newly founded Children's Defense Fund in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As journalist Carl Bernstein chronicled in his Hillary Clinton biography A Woman in Charge, much to Hillary's disappointment she received the news later that year that although she had passed the Arkansas bar exam, she had failed the one in D.C. — a piece of information that wasn't publicly revealed until thirty years later:

[Hillary] had accepted an exciting job opportunity in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the organization Marian Wright Edelman had recently founded, the Children's Defense Fund. When Bill and Hillary parted after her brief stay in Arkansas, their situation seemed totally unsettled.

Not long thereafter, on July 23 and 24, Hillary took the D.C. bar exam, according to records of the District of Columbia Bar Association. In Cambridge, she rented rooms not far from the Harvard campus. It was the first time in her life she had lived alone. She didn't like it.

On November 3, the District of Columbia Bar Association notified Hillary that she had failed the bar exam. For the first time in her life, she had flamed out — spectacularly, given the expectations of others for her, and even more so on her own. Of 817 applicants, 551 of her peers had passed, most from law schools less prestigious than Yale. She kept this news hidden for the next thirty years. She never took the exam again, despite many opportunities. Her closest friends and associates were flabbergasted when she made the revelation in a single throwaway line in Living History.

Those who knew her best speculated that she must have felt deep shame at her failure, and that her self-confidence — always so visible a part of her exterior — was shattered by the experience (though many first-rate lawyers, even Yale Law graduates, had flunked the bar on their first try).

As Bernstein noted, although the D.C. bar examination was "hardly one of the toughest in the nation," it was "far more difficult than the Arkansas exam."

In their book HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes theorized that one of the factors behind Hillary's failure to pass the Washington bar might have been her having taken a preparatory bar study class with an instructor who was not up-to-date on the material included in the exam:

Even one of the most embarrassing episodes of Hillary's young life, when she failed the Washington, D.C., bar exam, didn't appear to result from a lack of discipline. She enrolled in a bar study class with a professor, Joseph Nacrelli, who had a reputation for knowing every nook and cranny of the D.C. test. But in 1973 the exam was in its second year of including a multistate portion that tested more generally on American law rather than just city-specific questions. Hearing the professor lecture on a topic they knew well, some of the students in the class determined that portions of the material he was teaching were wrong. Those students panicked because the bar would test them on subjects they hadn't taken in law school. So they began to study those subjects independently, in addition to continuing the class, and they passed. It's hard to know whether Hillary failed because she studied the wrong information — some of those who relied solely on the class made the grade.

In her 2003 autobiography Living History, Hillary suggested that her failure to pass the Washington bar exam might have been due in part to her loneliness over being away from home and separated from her future husband Bill Clinton during that period:

Despite the satisfaction of my work, I was lonely and missed Bill more than I could stand. I had taken both the Arkansas and Washington, D.C., bar exams during the summer, but my heart was pulling me toward Arkansas. When I learned that I passed in Arkansas but failed in D.C., I thought that maybe my test scores were telling me something. I spent a lot of my salary on my telephone bills and was so happy when Bill came to see me over Thanksgiving.

The following year Hillary Rodham moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she took a position as a faculty member with the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville School of Law, and in 1977 (having married Bill Clinton in the interregnum) she joined the Rose Law Firm, where she specialized in patent infringement and intellectual property law cases.


Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes.   HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.     New York: Crown, 2014.   ISBN 0-804-13677-7.

Bernstein, Carl.   A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.     New York: Knopf, 2007.   ISBN 0-307-38855-7.

Clinton, Hillary.   Living History.     New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.   ISBN 0-743-22224-5.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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