The Legal Beat
How I Self-Studied For The Bar Exam
Posted on Wednesday April 24, 2019
Around this time of year during my third year of law school, I began to think about the bar exam. Just about all of my classmates were planning to take a bar review course soon after graduation. But after taking classes for three years, a part of me couldn’t stand the thought of paying thousands of dollars to be stuck in a classroom for eight hours straight for five days per week from May until July. But what choice did I have? Not taking a review course would be very risky considering that most Whitter Law School graduates did not pass the bar exam the first time.
While I thought about what I should do, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to start studying early and purchasing study materials to supplement what my bar review course would provide me.
The most difficult part of the bar exam were the essay questions. So I went to a local law school bookstore and I asked the clerk if he can recommend any self-study bar review books focusing on the essays. He emphatically suggested Bar Breakers Vol. 1 and 2 by Jeff Adachi.
Bar Breakers was a great book because it explained how the essays were graded and how to write the answers in a way that maximize your score.
After reading the first few chapters of Bar Breakers and skimming the rest, I thought this was all I needed to prepare for the essay question portion of the bar exam on my own. But just in case, I looked for additional practice questions. The California State Bar website has archives of past examinations with model answers. The Whittier Law School library had some older exams and study materials available for check out. And the bookstore had some used books with older essay questions and model answers.
As for the multiple-choice MBE, I was able to get used practice question books from the bookstore and from upperclassmen who were going to throw theirs away anyway. The law school library also had some practice guides available.
Finally, I purchased some supplemental study materials. I purchased the subject outlines and flash cards to help me memorize the rules. I also purchased audio CDs of lectures covering the subjects tested on the bar exam. I would listen to these while driving, jogging, playing a video game, or doing anything other than studying. If they featured the voices of Morgan Freeman, Sir David Attenborough, or Peter Cullen, I could listen to them while sleeping.
And how much did I pay for everything that I described above? I think I paid a little over $1,000.
After purchasing everything, I spent a few hours each day during the semester studying for the exam. Usually I did one practice exam, did a number of multiple choice questions, and then either listened to an audio lecture, used the flash cards, or read the outline. After final exams were over and after taking the following weekend off, I spent most of the day studying. This became a routine soon after.
After graduation ceremonies, I was debating which bar exam prep company to work with. Since I could not decide at the time, I also researched why people take a bar prep course. Most do it because they think the cost will motivate them to study or risk wasting their money. Others do it because they need help setting up a study routine. And others want the books, practice exams, and other support services these companies provide.
After thinking about it, I had the study materials. And as for a study routine, I was able to set one up on my own.
Finally, I was questioning whether a bar prep program was worth the cost. Don’t get me wrong. Almost every bar prep program provides a valuable service. I just was not sure that investing thousands of dollars would improve my motivation to study. I had other reasons to be motivated such as my growing student loan bill, and my diminishing job opportunities if I failed the exam.
So after giving it a lot of thought, I decided to study on my own.
One good thing about studying on your own is that the entire day is flexible. So there were days where I brushed up on a subject I felt good about while spending more time on a subject I had trouble with. Other days, I read or listened to a lecture. And there were a few off days where I tried to commit as many intentional torts as possible while playing Grand Theft Auto.
I tried to take tests simulating bar exam conditions as often as possible. I designated every Wednesday as MBE day. I had a full practice set of 200 MBE questions that I would take under timed conditions similar to the bar exam. Similarly, on Tuesdays or Thursdays, I would try to answer a number of essay questions in three hours, just like the bar exam. This can get tricky sometimes because it is hard to get uninterrupted quiet time to yourself for eight hours during the day. I could not do a practice exam at a Starbucks. And as exam day approached, it was hard to get a spot at a library because everyone else was studying there as well. One good thing about most bar review courses is that they can reserve a room for an entire day to simulate a bar exam.
Most importantly, I made sure that I would always have access to practice questions. This was particularly important for the MBE because there is no technique for mastering the multiple-choice questions other than knowing the rules, doing as many practice questions as possible under timed conditions, and learning from each wrong answer.
Finally, I also made sure that I had a “big picture” plan. That is simple: master every subject tested on the bar exam but be able to answer just enough to get a passing score. Perfection is not required.
Obviously, I turned out all right studying on my own. I talked to a few classmates after they took the exam and passed. Most did not regret signing up with a bar review prep course also some thought that they could have passed while studying on their own.
Anyway, this was how I studied on my own and passed the bar exam. There was not much to it really. I had a plan, supplies, and was able to do as many practice questions under bar exam conditions. I’m sure that others (but not everyone) can do it too.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at [email protected] Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.