Taking the Bar Exam Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

It’s socially acceptable to dunk on math in America. It’s politically incorrect to dislike “travel” or “dogs.” And it’s considered weird to not sign up for an expensive bar review course when you’re studying for the bar exam.

I have a lot to say about all of these, but let’s address that last one about bar review courses. Look at this article from Business Insider:

"If I tried to take the bar again, the cost for a class and the test itself could be up to $3,000, which I just can't afford — so I'm stuck with the debt of law school without the prestige of bar membership."

No! It doesn’t have to be this way just because you want to practice law!

You probably assumed that you NEEDED to go with a bar prep company after graduation.

The question was framed as “what’s the best bar exam prep course?” rather than “should I take a bar course?” You were bombarded with offers from the usual suspects (Barbri and the gang) since day one of being a law student.

So it’s not your fault that no one exposed you to the idea of alternate paths such as self-study. Also, at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with using a course, as long as you use it properly.

Huh, not everything is black and white in this world. Go figure.

It’s just that you don’t NEED a course (by default). You don’t NEED a tutor (unless you want personal guidance). In fact, nowadays, you can ask AI to explain the law like you’re a child! Bar exam fees are high enough already.

You don’t have to spend $10,000 or $3,000 or anything close to that (besides registration fees) every time you take this test just for the chance to become a licensed attorney.

I’ll show you how below, unless you want to victimize yourself to make the news.

"Simple math told me it was cheaper to take and retake the [bar exam] 3-4 times using ... 'non-traditional' decent-priced materials ... than to spend an outrageous $6,000 on the BARBRI Prep Course (also apparently not made for anyone working full time)."

Again, I’m not wagging my finger saying you must or mustn’t enroll in a bar prep course. I’m just saying you can think about it and consciously decide for yourself. The right tools, approaches, and investments for you will pay off.

There is a way to pass the bar other than with big box bar prep courses.

Start by checking for any internal narratives you may have about what you need to spend your money on to prepare for the bar exam. (Below, I’ll share my take on how you only really need just THREE things for effective bar preparation.)

I’ll help you reexamine the default assumptions born from “big bar” lobbying by answering these questions:

  • What are the costs of taking the bar exam?
  • What are the drawbacks of “big box” bar programs? What can you do instead to address these drawbacks?
  • What are the benefits of big bar courses?
  • Should you sign up for one? (It depends)
  • How do you prepare for the bar exam without a prep course or a big budget?

Bar exam costs and fees

Let’s take a look at how much it costs to even be a bar exam taker. There are three main categories to consider when budgeting for the bar exam:

  • Living expenses
  • Bar exam registration fees (paid to the bar examiners)
  • Bar exam study materials

Living expenses

These are baseline costs, such as rent and food. You likely have a rough idea of how much this will be per month, which may change while you’re preparing for the exam depending on your living situation.

Bar exam fees

How much does it cost to take the exam?

Registration fees include (1) an exam application fee to sit for the bar exam and (2) laptop fees if you want to use a laptop to take the exam by typing.

It’ll depend on your state’s bar exam. For example, the California Bar Exam will run you $677 for the exam fee and a $153 laptop fee. Attorney candidates don’t have an additional exam fee but will have to pay a higher exam fee of $983 instead. There are also late filing fees ranging from $50 to $250 if you don’t register before the deadlines. You can withdraw for up to a 60% refund.

While you can control living expenses to a degree, you can’t control these registration costs.

You can control the costs of bar prep materials, though. This is a trap that many first-time bar takers fall into…

Bar prep supplement costs

Many law school graduates purchase a bar preparation course and one or more supplements to study for the exam. If you want to pass the bar exam, it is a good idea to use at least one resource to help streamline the study process. This can run you anywhere from zero (if you’re savvy) to a few thousand dollars (or more if you get a tutor).

Worse comes to worst, bar exam loans are also available if you truly want to finish this ordeal.

But taking the bar exam doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg! I will focus on what is often the biggest cost associated with the bar exam, which is bar prep courses (Barbri, Themis, etc.). You can use this information to decide whether you need to splurge on a big box course.

Drawbacks of “big box” bar review courses

1. One-size-fits-all approach

My first time was stressful, guilt-inducing, and rigid.

I’m talking about my first attempt at bar prep. Going out ONCE for a mocha frappuccino with a classmate threw off the entire schedule that Kaplan forced on me. I failed the California bar, and so did she. (She passed the second time with a tutor. I passed the second time with self-study. Do you notice what’s missing?)

Traditional bar prep companies have to cater to the widest audience, including the lowest common denominator. That means their schedules and approach are one-size-fits-all, like your older sibling’s hand-me-downs. It’ll do as a start if you’re going to use it, but you should make it fit you.

These programs are for the average student—the abstract, reasonable person. Many pass. Many don’t.

But you’re not an average student, nor do you want to be.

Your prep course will give you a default schedule. You can look and see if it works for your situation (maybe you have a job, family duties, etc.) and your strengths and weaknesses. See it as a mere proposal and not something you need to follow absolutely.

Many (including my 2013 self) believe or assume that their “big box” course will magically prepare them without realizing that it is still, at its core, a self-learning endeavor. You’re ultimately responsible for learning and internalizing the material as well as the skills to apply the material.

The sooner you realize that bar prep is a self-study endeavor, the less frazzled you’ll be.

If you decide to diverge from the default autopilot schedule, I recommend crafting your own “macro” schedule and crafting your own destiny. Make this your last time, not wait for your last time.

2. They enable too much time spent going through the motions

They promote a feeling of safety and an illusion of progress based on completion bars, fill-in-the-blank notes, and assignment checkboxes. Going through the motions to complete these doesn’t mean you’re making progress learning and gaining the skills for passing the bar.

The completionist trap is that you’re led to focus more on how to move the progress meter over how you can pass the fucking bar, damn it (hopefully you weren’t reading this as a bedtime story to put your kids to sleep).

A notorious example is the lectures, which can be hit or miss. Many of these video lectures are perceived value used to justify the sticker price of the programs, backed by reputation from a previous generation of legal practitioners.

Sure, if it’s the first time you’re studying a subject, a lecture can be a great introduction. But sitting there staring at videos of “professors” reciting the same things found in the (often excellent) outlines may not be the best use of your time.

It works for some people when they speed up the videos. For me, this just made me rewind and waste even more time.

You might even get that nagging feeling: “Actually, my bar course isn’t really helping…” (You’re not alone.)

“What would you suggest I do instead of listening to all the lectures?”

Keep in mind that the more you DO, the simpler it gets. “99% of information we read, we forget anyway. The best way to remember is to ‘DO.’” That’s how you get off the floor.

Put another way, there’s a difference between 6 hours of filling in notes and getting too exhausted to do anything else at the end of the day vs. 6 hours of working through questions (while reviewing outlines) and getting better at solving problems, which is what you’ll do on the exam.

Again, if you have access to the lectures and need a primer, feel free to cherry pick ones you think will be helpful. If it’s an analysis or breakdown of questions (Chris Fromm’s MBE bootcamp videos come to mind), take a look after you grade yourself on the questions.

You can sample a few lectures and then consciously decide to deprioritize them (maybe watch them at night as review after you’ve done the hands-on tasks).

It’s not all or nothing. It’s about being conscious and deliberate about your choices, not going through the motions on autopilot. It’s not a big deal if you start watching (or reading an article like this) and turn it off in the middle because it’s not helping.

Here’s more on how to use your bar review course properly.

3. Cost

Do you know how many tacos you could buy with $3,000?

The cost of preparing for the bar exam could be $0 if you really wanted. Bar prep doesn’t have to be expensive. (Neither does eating healthy. Don’t use cost as an excuse.)

Yes, your state bar and ExamSoft will take hundreds of dollars every time you take the exam with a laptop, but let’s focus on the big leaks—prep courses, supplements, and tutors.

You may end up needing one or more of these. But my point is that they may not be as necessary as you assumed. I’ll show you below how to prepare for the bar exam just as effectively, if not more, on a budget.

On a budget = without the bells and whistles of a big bar prep program, without the price gouging, without resorting to a bunch of different supplements that add up, without hiring a tutor whose strategies may or may not work for you, etc.

Benefits of large prep companies

1. Excellent raw materials

Well, they’d better be good for the thousands of $$$$ you’re paying.

Experts have parsed out the testable law and crammed it into an outline. They wrote model essay answers with all the right issues. These are great references to have!

I do recommend using the raw materials they offered by the big courses. The gold standard for outlines is the Conviser Mini Review by Barbri. I also highly recommend Barbri’s essay workbooks.

If you’re not enrolled in a course already, you can get both of those books from another student (forums, FB groups), eBay, Craigslist, or sometimes Amazon.

That means you don’t need to buy the whole farm. You can actually get the goods without the fluff at a fraction of the full price (or even less, as I noted in my Supplement Shopping List).

2. Questions and answers to practice with

Some programs have a huge bank of practice MBE questions. Some programs have real MBE questions. Some programs have past essays in one convenient place.

All are valuable parts of your arsenal. They allow you to take action—to practice and self-critique.

3. You only have to pay once

For the raw materials mentioned above. And that is all you really need, if anything.

They might be “nice” enough to let you repeat their course at a discount. If you’re retaking the bar, you don’t need to go out of your way to repeat the same lectures you’re going to forget about the next day, let alone pay for them.

If you’re wondering if you should sign up for a bar course, it depends on your reason.

Do it if you want structure and order and someone telling you what to do. There’s nothing wrong with this. You’d rather focus on doing something and moving forward rather than reinventing the wheel. Just be aware that these programs are good for the “what to do” and less so for the “how to do.”

Do it if you’re subsidized by someone else. You might as well. For example, your employer is paying for it, or you were a student rep and got free access.

In both of these cases, I would go for Barbri. It’s the gold standard, and your rule statements will blend in with the other applicants’. You want this. You don’t want to stick out in a weird way or get “creative,” unless you’re such a nerd that you’ll blow them away with the history and policy of the 12(b)(6) rule. Just get in, get the points, and get out.

Don’t do it if your sole reason is psychological. You’re afraid of what’s ahead. Everyone else is doing it, and you don’t want to feel left behind. Or simply because you locked in a low price because you paid a deposit as a 1L.

Don’t do it if you’re on financial thin ice. Bar prep doesn’t have to be expensive.

“So how do I prepare for the bar exam without a course or a big budget?”

It’s not about how much you spend on resources. It’s about how to be resourceful.

It’s not about what shiny tools you have. It’s about how you use the tools at your fingertips.

Just because you have the best tennis racket doesn’t mean you’ll win against Serena Williams. That depends on your own training.

There are really only three things you need for bar prep:

  1. Source materials (outlines, questions from past bar exams to practice with, sample answers). Traditionally in the realm of commercial prep companies and/or supplemented with other resources. If you do have a bar review course, here’s the best way to study for the bar exam using a course.
  2. How-to knowledge (which I cover). Presumed from your law school days or given a cursory look by prep companies. Usually deemed “obvious” (yet fails many students).
  3. Action from you to do the things that matter (practice and feedback). Only supplied by your self-motion and the will to act.

One of these is the toughest on your finances… But bar preparation doesn’t have to be expensive!

I said above that you could get the raw materials at a fraction of the price or even less. What else can you get on a budget? Or what should you get if you do have a bit of a budget to spend?

I put together a supplement shopping list for different budgets, going from a “pacifist” budget that requires ZERO dollars, to one if you have unlimited funds (say, you have an employer sponsoring you).

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