III. Nuts & Bolts: The Bar Exam Review Materials

There is nothing vaguely similar to the bar exam in law school when considering the amount of information and scope of subject matter covered on any given bar exam. Accordingly, it is unrealistic, and impracticable, to approach preparing for the bar as you would for a law school final examination. Although casebooks, and the case method, might be a more effective method for learning legal principles, their nuances and application, time limitations simply do not allow for such in-depth learning while you prepare for your bar exam. Consequently, bar prep and review companies have proliferated to address the unique needs and circumstances of the prospective bar exam taker. The substantive review materials offered by bar review companies often include black-letter law outlines of varying detail and exam practice aids, including practice essays, multiple choice questions, and performance tests, if applicable.

A. Black-Letter Law

When you write an essay or answer a multiple choice question on a bar exam, bar examiners always have a specific rule or rules of law in mind. These legal principles are the universe of law you will be responsible for on your bar exam. Likewise, your review materials should first and foremost include substantive materials spelling out these rules of law—the black-letter law. Typically, commercial bar reviews will include volumes of materials providing, in varying levels of detail, the black-letter law. Since the law does not vary for each jurisdiction, of course, the black-letter law presented by one bar review company or another should not vary, absent negligent or incorrect composition of the materials themselves. The only variance, in reality, will be the manner in which the black-letter law is presented, including style, tone, and format. As discussed below, the typical bar examinee will, or should, utilize these black-letter law resources to create individualized study aids.

B. Bar Exam Practice Aids

Besides the law itself, your substantive bar review materials should also include exam practice aids. The value of such materials cannot be over-emphasized. Exam practice aids include any manner of practice essays, multiple choice questions, and performance tests, which are suitable to your bar exam’s format. Such exam practice aids are an invaluable component of any effective bar review. Simply memorizing legal principle after legal principle does not provide you the know-how, or practical experience, to write bar exam essays that meet the expectations of bar examiners nor train you to answer multiple choice questions under strict time limitations.

The quality of exam practice aids, of course, can vary dramatically. Without question, the best exam practice aids available to you are your state’s prior bar exams. Many states provide prior exams and model answers or answer analysis to a prospective bar examinee. Since state bars do not administer the MBE, or the other Multistate exams, you will only be able to obtain state-specific sections of prior exams from your state bar examiners (i.e., essays or other state-unique portions of your bar exam). For Multistate exams, including the MBE, MEE, and MPT, the NCBEX offers real, previously administered Multistate exams on its website. You may also purchase additional Multistate exams, beyond the free publications, from the NCBEX directly. In some instances, commercial bar reviews include “licensed” MBEs from the NCBEX, which are real, previously administered MBE exams. Typically, a commercial bar review will utilize these licensed MBEs to administer a full, practice MBE as part of their bar review package, which usually takes place at the mid-point of the commercial bar review course.

Besides the official, real past exams from both state bar examiners and the NCBEX, commercial bar reviews often offer “unofficial” bar exam practice aids, usually sample essays, multiple choice questions, and performance tests written by bar review prep companies themselves. Although useful if you possess no alternative, these “unofficial” practice aids should only be relied upon, especially for essay practice and performance tests, if your state bar examiners do not make prior exams available. The sheer number of past exams offered by most state bar examiners, especially in recent years, should provide sufficient exam practice aids. If given the choice, real, previously administered exams should always be used instead of bar prep company creations. The value of using real, previously administered bar exams with real answers from past bar examinees, written under exam conditions, instead of commercial bar review creations should be obvious.

Even if your particular state bar examiners do not make past exams available or if you have exhausted your state’s available exams, you should consider using past exams from other states. Exams from other states can be especially useful for quick issue-spotting or essay outlining exercises. For example, apply the law you are learning, or have learned, for your state bar exam to outline or issue-spot the essay portion of another state’s prior exams. The sample answers will allow you to identify whether your issue-spotting is up to par. Generally, the issues from state to state will be the same, only the outcome, once another state’s particular law is applied, might differ. For such issue-spotting purposes, past exams from other states are an excellent alternative.

C. Bar Review on the Cheap, Or How Not to Spend Thousands

The dirty little secret bar review companies won’t tell you is that they can only really give you the law. The package sure is nice—long-winded lectures from prominent law professors and nice, shiny books. Your learning and memorization of the law and improvement of test-taking skills, however, is entirely up to you. Barbri can neither memorize the material nor write the practice essays for you. This is why so many people are successful on bar exams using last year’s commercial bar review books while never enrolling in the course itself, or why people have success with a variety of approaches, courses, and different companies. Everything covered in the lectures is also provided to you in written form. Of course, having the discipline to review the materials on your own without the force-fed nature of the lectures is an entirely different notion. But, the point remains, bar review lectures are simply a repetition of the written bar review materials.

Additionally, the lectures themselves are an inefficient method to teach the material. The Socratic Method walked out the door at law school graduation. Your fellow students at your average commercial bar review course all begin the course with varying levels of proficiency within each individual subject tested on the bar exam. But, the lectures treat everyone equally. For every subject, all students receive the same instruction. For example, the bar prep student who took every Evidence class in law school sits through the same lectures as the student sitting next to her/him who never took Evidence in law school. The Evidence expert would better utilize his/her time on another subject, while the Evidence novice would benefit from more instruction than the lectures actually provide.

This equal-instruction-for-all approach of the lecture method is why some people will become fed up with bar review lectures, realizing they can be more efficient studying on their own, and start skipping the lectures altogether. For these students, they would have been better off buying the bar review books from someone who took the course last year and saved thousands of dollars in the process.

Maybe you have already purchased your bar review course. If so, and if it is a reputable bar review, then you have all the black-letter law materials you will need to study for the bar. Or, perhaps, your employer is footing the bill for your bar review course, and its cost to you is inconsequential.

However, if you have not purchased your bar review course and are unwilling, reluctant, or unable to spend $2000-$4000 on a bar review, then you might be interested in an alternative way to study for the bar at a fraction of a cost. First, you must free yourself from the notion that you need a bar review lecture, which is the major component, along with all those review volumes, of the big-name bar review programs. Many bar examinees have passed the bar exam using study-at-home programs.

Without the lectures, to duplicate a commercial bar review course all you need are the review materials themselves. One can obtain review materials from a third party, a friend who took the bar exam previously or the plethora of commercial bar review materials available on various internet sites (e.g., Craigslist, eBay, etc…). Absent major changes in the scope of your bar exam, we would suggest not worrying about whether the bar review is “current” or not. If the materials are one or two years old, it will not matter, unless there has been a major revision of a significant portion of tested material (e.g., the UCC, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, etc…). The law does not change significantly over numerous subjects in just 1 or 2 years. Note, most bar examiners will give you substantial credit on the bar exam if your analysis is sound and “lawyer-like,” even if you get the law flat wrong. Besides black-letter law review sources, one should also obtain exam practice aids as mentioned above. Most used commercial bar review materials, however, will include these with the black-letter law materials. One exam practice aid you should absolutely have is practice MBE questions with explanations. If you can assemble the black-letter law and exam practice aids that duplicates, or is substantially similar, to a commercial bar review course, you will be on the same footing as someone else spending thousands of dollars on the same, without the lectures, of course. Essentially, you will have created and assembled your own study-at-home bar review course. A key to any study-at-home bar review or any bar review, of course, is a disciplined, well-planned study schedule.

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