V. The Substantive Review of the Law

The initial stages of your bar review will be filled with the review of many subjects you took in law school and, for most bar examinees, learning a couple of new subjects along the way. To perform this not so small task you will most likely rely upon black-letter law materials prepared especially for this purpose, as discussed above. However, use any review material with a caveat—you just spent three years of your life in law school, you are not a blank slate. Hopefully, you will merely be reviewing or fine-tuning materials already learned. Sure, there are probably a handful of subjects you will be learning for the first time, but bar review materials are generally cursory treatment of the subject matter. If you are truly confused, or frustrated with your bar review’s treatment of an issue, do your own research. Sometimes, a simple reading of a state statute can clear up poorly written, or confusing, bar review materials. There is a reason lawyers do not proudly display their bar review materials in their offices after passing the bar with other reference books picked up during law school.

Remember, though, you are learning the materials for the bar exam; you are not studying with an expectation of being called on from a law professor to discuss the nuances of a particular issue, or even for a law school exam, where discrete, obtuse intricacies of law can be tested or policy questions presented. On the exam, you will be asked to know and provide principles of law, and their pertinent elements, in an accurate, concise manner. Absent directions otherwise, references to statutes, case names, etc…, is not expected, nor asked for, when writing essay answers.

As discussed above in regards to developing a study schedule, the actual “review” portion of your bar review, where you are reviewing substantive material and developing a reference system, as discussed below, should entail approximately the first six weeks of an eight week bar review.

A. Topic Coverage & Understanding: When is enough, enough?

Once underway, you will generally have about three days to complete the review of an individual subject during the substantive review portion of your bar preparation. During these review sessions, always keep the individual concepts you are learning or reviewing within the broader context of the subject as a whole. We have found it helpful to keep a master subject outline (e.g., the Subject Outlines provided for the MBE) for each subject beside you while studying and reviewing individual topics and concepts.

Avoid the temptation to become bogged down in the minutiae of individual or complex concepts. For example, don’t spend a full day mastering the Rule Against Perpetuities. You may wind up knowing the Rule cold, but what is the benefit for exam purposes? At most, the MBE will allocate one Real Property question to the Rule, if that, and it is highly unlikely any right-minded bar examiners will provide an essay on the Rule. Instead, utilize your review time more efficiently to cover other areas of Real Property, which will result in the coverage of many more possible MBE questions or essay topics. You will wind up covering much more of the testable subject area than just one discrete issue. Knowing the subject area of 10 potential MBE questions is time better spent than mastering 1 potential MBE question. If you are really interested in a subject, like the Rule, note it during study and pursue it after the exam. Then, you can satisfy your curiosity about the “fertile octogenarian.”

When studying for your bar exam, you may become unsure if your initial review was sufficient for each individual subject. This self-doubt is common for all bar examinees. This feeling develops from the fact that you will be learning entire legal subjects in a matter of days whereas in law school it took months. Additionally, the nature and extent of bar preparation is, for most, a new, unfamiliar task. But, like riding a bicycle, you really cannot unlearn how to prepare for a bar exam. For bar examinees taking a second or additional bar exam in another jurisdiction, after passing their initial bar exam, this is a welcome insight. We’ve discovered that when taking subsequent bar exams your psychology changes. Instead of worrying about the unknown, your bar review becomes more of a chore, armed with the knowledge of just how much work the bar review will entail but that it can be done nonetheless. Unfortunately, for first-time exam takers or repeaters of the same exam, this insight is unavailable. Instead, a good test to utilize to determine whether any given testable subject has been sufficiently reviewed is to look at the master subject outline and see if there are any concepts that are unfamiliar or unexplainable. If unfamiliar or unexplainable concepts persist, do not move on to another subject until those concepts are familiarized. It is very important to remember at this stage to distinguish between “knowing a testable subject” and “having a testable subject memorized.” Your focus at this initial stage (first six weeks) should be the introduction of foreign, new concepts and subjects and the review of previously learned material. Memorization, for most, comes later.

B. Creating a Reference System for Later Memorization

Your substantive review of the materials, as discussed previously, should coincide with the creation of a “reference system” to be used for later memorization and review purposes after the substantive review is completed. Unfortunately, the bar exam is not an open book test, and it demands you memorize the material. For many, this aspect of bar preparation creates great consternation and frustration given the sheer volume of material to be memorized. Additionally, trying to memorize the vast amount of material typically given by a commercial bar review is for many a Herculean, impossible task. To simplify the substantive material, bar examinees use a variety of different methods to digest the material. Examples include outlines, flashcards, and checklists among others. Whatever method you choose, this is what we mean by “reference system.” The key, however, is to start creating this reference system from day one of your bar review. If you start from day one, reviewing with an eye for later memorization and creating a reference system for this purpose, you will be immeasurably grateful in the weeks immediately before the exam. We cannot emphasize enough how important this is for your entire bar review process to be productive and efficient. Unfortunately, commercial bar review courses provide little or no guidance regarding you developing a “reference system,” believing their review materials are sufficient.

The real value in creating a reference system is two-fold. First, the value in the process of making your study aid--reading given materials, digesting and conceptualizing, putting concepts into your own words--is a far greater and more effective way to learn than simply reading the printed materials you are given over and over. Creating this reference system forces you to review and engage the material in a state of “active learning” and avoids the passive, and often ineffective, method of simply flipping through page after page or sitting through lecture after lecture without actively engaging the substantive material. For many, such passive learning is not very effective for learning and memorizing concepts, which is the second benefit of creating the reference system. For purposes of memorization, a self-created study aid in your own words is much easier to memorize toward the end of your bar review.

As mentioned previously, there are a variety of methods anyone can utilize in creating their own “reference system.” Whatever method you choose make sure it is a system that you are comfortable with and, if possible, have had success with in the past (i.e., law school exams). There will always be proponents of any one method, usually because the person espousing that method had success using it. This usually boils down to the outlines v. flashcards dilemma---some swear by either, or both. Both outlines and flashcards have their respective strengths. The following evaluates the relative strengths and weaknesses of a number of “reference systems.”

1. Outlines

Outlines are an excellent method to learn the law of an individual topic/issue while allowing you to see how each concept is inter-related to the subject as a whole.

As a reference system, outlines predominate for a number of reasons. Outlines are especially useful when preparing for essays because an essay question tests your knowledge of many issue/concepts of an individual subject at one time. Recognizing those issues necessitates mentally looking at an essay fact pattern through the lens of the entire subject tested—a de facto outline.

2. Flashcards

True flashcards are an efficient way to test and build your memory on an individual concept or rule. Additionally, “selecting out” memorized flashcards avoids unnecessarily spending time on concepts already learned and memorized.

The true strength of flashcards is the ability they provide to focus your learning and memorization on a singular concept or rule of law. This is how the MBE, or any multiple choice questions, tests your knowledge. Flashcards also provide an easy method to selectively reinforce the learning and memorization process. Specifically, once you master a concept and memorize it, you can set it aside and spend more time on the concepts you have yet to master. Moreover, periodic review of the “selected out” flashcards reinforces what you have already learned.

3. Flashcard-Outlines

One reference system we have had success with is a hybrid approach: “Flashcard-Outlines.” For many, creating the flashcards can be too tedious and a bit inefficient (remember, the true value in any reference system is your personal creation of that reference system). However, recognizing the benefit of using both outlines and flashcards, we suggest the utilization of Flashcard-Outlines. The whole concept is very simple. Flashcard-Outlines are essentially just that: outlines broken down into 1 individual testable topic/issue per page. Collectively, all the pages together create an outline of the entire subject. Individually, each page can serve the same purpose as an individual flashcard.

One process to make Flashcard-Outlines is as follows. For each subject, create a comprehensive outline. As mentioned, creating the outlines themselves serves a valuable learning process. After creating the outline for a subject in a word processor, paginate the outlines to separate each testable issue/topic to one individual page. This is the beginning of the flashcard component of the outlines. After printing out the outlines, you can review your outlines more efficiently by spending more time on unmastered concepts/issues by selecting out mastered concepts (pages)—the flashcard method. Additionally, you can edit and manipulate each separate topic/issue (each page) to condense the information and concepts to your liking and print out a new version of that concept/page as your study progresses. Eventually, your comprehensive outline will become a workable, lean condensed outline—built page by page. An important key to this method is to center your review of each subject around a major heading outline for each subject. A constant reference to this major heading outline, as you study each individual concept, reinforces how each part of the outline fits into the subject as a whole.

4. Other Methods

Like our “Flashcard-Outlines,” most other reference systems utilized by bar examinees are really just variations of either outlines or flashcards. For example, checklists are just highly condensed outlines, reduced versions of outlines that focus on major testable issues found on bar exam essay questions.

Please note, you can obtain the free, full version in pdf format via digital download here.