The Barbri Regret: How to Recognize the Trap and Decide for Yourself

It’s that time of the year again. Results for the July bar exam are finally in for everyone.

You’ve endured the onslaught of “aww… you got this” and “I’m sure you passed!” for weeks and months.

Anxiety, excitement, uncertainty squirting into your heart every time you thought of the moment of truth. Waiting is often the hardest thing. Uncertainty is being locked in a padded room alone with delusions of hopes and worries.

Well, the insanity of the wait is over. How’d you do? Did you…


Pass the bar?

Congratulations! This is going to be the highlight of your life, and it’s all downhill from here.

Only half kidding. You can finally move on with your free life. You did it. You made it. This is what you went to law school to do.

My work is done if I’ve made myself obsolete. Before you go, I’d love to hear from you about how you overcame this beast. You can email me (or leave a comment) with any stories or tips you want to pass on to future cohorts.  I’ve been loving hearing the words of relief and joy. Hearing yours would mean a lot to me.

If you have any returned essays from previous attempts, please consider donating scans/photos so I can share with future students in my free essay answer bank.

Lastly, if you found my material helpful, the best compliment you can give me is to spread the word about my blog (you can even link this article). Thank you!

Not pass?

I’m sorry. This was everything to you. This was all you wanted in life.

You waited this long to find out, and you don’t even know what the hell to do now. At least you know now and can take a step forward, whichever direction that may be.

I understand if you don’t want to listen to me right now… What do I know anyway? I don’t have a time machine. I can’t possibly mend the hole in your heart.

This is a hazing process. Worst of all, it’s costly. For some, dreams stay dreams. They resign to an alternate timeline where they aren’t attorneys, a chapter missing from their lives.

It’s tempting to think that this is a result of various factors. Your life situation isn’t ideal for studying (kids, a job, etc.). The exam is getting harder. The pass score is too high. The MBE is getting trickier. Essays are getting more complicated. Issues are subtle. Or maybe you think that you’re incompetent. Not fit for the law. Maybe it’s all of the above.

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”—Captain Picard

It doesn’t matter “why.” One thing you can do now is to acquire more bar skills and bar intuition.

How? The technique for bouncing back is to study your failure.

This defeat is fodder for your next victory. If you can graduate law school, you’re capable of passing the bar exam.

If you’ll allow me, I’m going to assist you with your bar quest. Every week, starting today until bar week, I’ll take you through steps to acquire those bar skills and gain those bar intuitions.

I’m also going to ask a lot from you. As you know, this shit isn’t easy. In fact, it’ll be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But there are also many things worse than failing an exam.

“It won’t be easy, but I’ll do it.” I like that.

First, let’s talk about how to approach your preparation to come.


The Barbri Regret: How to Recognize the Trap and Decide for Yourself


I was chatting with a homeless man at a grocery store the other night. I asked David where he sleeps. He gave me a smirk and said, I sleep wherever I want.

Dude! It was a pretty profound moment for me. To “optimize” our lives and fit in with others, we “need” a lease, a mortgage, a car, a fancy getaway, the latest gadget, this or that. We’re led to believe we need things that impose covenants and obligations on us. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s part of normal society.

But David does what he wants, in his own way. It didn’t matter that he was forced into that situation. He made it work for him.

You’re also your own person… or I assume you want to be.

Commercial “big box” bar courses will impose a very specific plan on you, down to the number of MBE questions to do and which lectures to watch during which part of the day, complete with checklists and a fear indicator (showing you how close to you 100% you are, you perfectionist).

“You better do X, Y and Z at these times—or else!” Many will do just that, and that’s fine. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing necessarily. It’s just that it may not be what you need, as your own person.

But there’s something that you may not want to admit about your bar prep. The elephant in the room, the nagging paper cut of a doubt, the final valve keeping a wave of panic at bay…

“Actually, my bar course isn’t really helping…”

You spent a lot of time comparing Barbri, Themis, Kaplan, BarMax… You made a personal choice and paid a lot of money for it. It’s what you were supposed to do. It’s what everyone else was doing.

So you’re gonna keep that nagging thought to yourself. When everyone else is going the same direction, we assume they’re right.

But these are what your fellow students in the trenches have said about their own regrets…

Enough. You get the picture.

But that’s not to bash on the “big box” courses like Barbri (or whichever company you prefer). And it’s easier said than done to abandon the bloat. Maybe it’s not even a good idea to do so.

I just think it would serve you well to look at additional supplemental resources because there’s no one set path! Yes, taking a big course is one way to pass, but there are other ways also.

Bar examiners are already well aware of common prep materials, and the exam wouldn’t be an effective filtering process if anyone who took a course can pass.

I followed Kaplan’s program to a tee the first time (getting frazzled and stressed in the process) and failed. I was poor and went lean my second time (simplified, happier) and passed. I was “serious” both times, but it was much more effective the second time when I intentionally did things that made sense instead of being pulled by someone else’s prefab approach.

Self-study worked for me, and it’s worked for others, which is why I talk about it. Also, it’s not necessarily the tools you use (although some are preferable over others, no doubt), but the mentality of learning (expending mental effort, not just physical) vs. letting tools gather around you and letting articles wash over you like a warm shower.

"Taking it on my own was a lot more manageable with the structure your site & recs provided"

Whatever you’ve been putting off is here, right now. Concentrate your effort in the next 3 months instead of spreading it over longer. Expect it to be difficult. Refusing to suffer now is going to be doubly more costly. You shall repent with time, money, and opportunities.

If you don’t proactively and deliberately think about what’s possible, you get the default. Your life decides for you instead of you deciding your life. If life gave you lemons, you weren’t looking for the oranges.

Whether or not you use a prep course, it’s still up to you in the end. No one cares about you as much as you. Only you can prevent forest fires.

However, 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 courses do provide excellent study materials. They’d better for thousands of dollars. What matters is how you use the materials.

For example, do you prefer to read outlines and do the problems? Great, don’t get stuck in the trap of getting familiar with the outlines while avoiding the actual work.

Do you enjoy listening to lectures? Go ahead. Just don’t spend too much effort trying to “get everything” and end up exhausted for the rest of the day. Maybe you could even use lectures as review at night.

The point is to be deliberate about your choices and do what makes sense for you, while noticing common mistakes of those who go through the slaughterhouse every half year.

For more ideas, listen to this audio conversation with Mark, a recent bar taker. We discuss what he liked and didn’t like about Barbri and, in hindsight, what his approach should have looked like instead.

Here are some timestamps so you can jump to the parts that interest you:

0:00: How Barbri throws you into the deep end after giving you lectures
1:30: “No, just follow the program”
2:00: What Mark would have done differently in retrospect, compared to their regimen
3:35: The extent to which lectures can be useful & what they fail to tell you
5:20: It’s still a self-study course! But “big box” courses are not tailored for you
7:40: What to do instead of blindly trusting the program
8:45: “I could have done that for 8 weeks instead of 2”
9:40: What they do well (delivery, clear on what’s tested a lot) & how you can make the most of their resources
12:00: What to do beyond the minimum work
12:45: Different ideas on arranging the work
14:00: How to learn the skills of organization and concepts of the material (particularly in the context of essays). Mark also mentions that this is how you learn which issues are clustered together (exactly one of the bases of “issue checking”)
17:15: They tell you what to study, but they don’t tell you this…
18:00: Why you should listen to yourself


Barbri actually doesn’t control your schedule and approach; you do!

Despite that, you may feel like sticking with your prep course. You may feel locked into a sunk-cost mindset because you paid thousands of dollars for it already.

Whatever the reason, that’s totally fine as long as it’s your own reasoned decision. Your rationale and gut will convene together to tell you what’s the right thing to do. All you have to do is listen to yourself. If you can’t come to a clean decision, at least just be aware that there isn’t one set path.

People have passed with Barbri’s cookie-cutter regimen. People have failed with the exact same regimen. The key is to pay attention to your progress.

Are you learning, or are you just doing busy work? When you recognize that you’re not getting anywhere, change course and try something else. Remember that Barbri is simply one of your tools.

Does all this sound exciting? Are you determined?

In a few weeks, though, the pain of failure will dull. You’ll be less “motivated” than before. That’s reality. Even if I tell you how important daily study habits and consistency are, that’s not what you’re interested in. That’s reality too. So I won’t belabor the point too much.

What’s motivating is progress. But don’t confuse motivation with progress. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you know it’s actually more effective to wish you were better instead of wishing things were easier.

So when you start slipping, just remember that it’s the work you put up front that you’ll reap down the road. I’ll keep reminding you, too.

The CEO of Dropbox is a great example of upfront preparation. He’s always found it valuable to ask himself, “One year from now, two years from now, five years from now, what will I wish I had been learning today?”

Similarly, one week from now, one month from now, once bar week rolls around in February, what will you wish you had been learning today?

Get off the screen for just five minutes and think about it. Is there anything that’s different about your answer compared to what your prep course tells you?

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Over the next dozen weeks or so, I’ll offer timely guidance and suggestions on how to prepare for your next bar (not all will be published on the blog).

If you don’t want to miss any of them, sign up for my slightly famous weekly emails (along with coupons and other goodies) here:

Or not. It’s up to you. It always has been. If the blog doesn’t jibe with you, move on and find better guidance, for your own sake. You be the judge on whether what I’m saying is sensible and applicable to your situation.

Maybe it’s just me, but I always get skeptical when someone says “trust me.” Trust yourself and your preparation.

Next week, we’ll talk about what one of the first things to do when preparing for the bar—crafting your own personalized study schedule (with examples).

In the meantime, comment below with your answer to the question I posed above: Three months from now, what will you wish you’d been learning today?


3 Replies to “The Barbri Regret: How to Recognize the Trap and Decide for Yourself”

  1. I am a lawyer in England and I took the California Bar exam twice: July 2016 and February 2017. Having failed once and passed once, here is my experience:

    I signed up to Barbri in England. The course was pitched as a course you follow online over 6 months, while working a full time job. It made it clear that it would NOT be a fun 6 months, but that others had done it and I would too. I was working as Head of Legal for a company, but the hours were stable, so I started the course with excitement and ready to commit to the hard work.

    My schedule was: wake at 5.45am, go straight to the gym (working out is advised to stay sane during this time). 8.30 am I sat down at work, until 5.30/6pm. I would head home, make dinner and all told, by the time I was ready to work it was 8pm. I worked until 11.30pm and then slept and REPEAT. I tried to cram additional study time by reading on the train to work, but I need quiet to absorb materials, so that never really worked for me and the Barbri ap for practice MBE was a massive fail, it always crashed and lost my answers. On weekends I sat down at 8am to listen to Barbri lectures, which take ALL DAY and finish at 11pm. This is amazing because the lecture is supposed to be done within a few hours but with stops for food and so on, it was more like 14 hours on Sat/Sun. Inevitably, that meant I did not have time to do the homework and would spend Mon-Weds trying to catch up, which I never did, so I got behind on coursework. A friend sent me some abridged outlines that apparently included all the information I would need to pass the exams, but reading someone else’s shorthand was not helpful for me. By the time it got to the all day practice MBE and Essay mock exams, I knew I did not know anywhere near enough to pass, but figured I should take them anyway and see where I was, objectively, so I could improve. It was pretty dismal, 80 MBE correct out of 200 and the essays were just below a pass (55-60 mark). I quit my job June 30th so I could spend 3 weeks cramming. By the time I flew to LA, I knew more, but I also was painfully aware of gaps in my knowledge. Barbri said that we needed to trust that the only things we needed to know were supposedly covered in the lectures (I can tell you THAT IS NOT TRUE from my experience). I was told not to cram the morning of an exam because “if you don’t know it by now, you won’t know it”, so I didn’t. The exam questions we got were actually fairly good, knowable topics: contracts, constitutional, PR, property. No horrible remedies or crim pro or wills and trusts (my personal nemesis). I spent 2 months waiting for results, taking the MPRE (I am an optimist) before finding out I had failed. I WAS CRUSHED. I had never failed any exam in my life before. I cried for 24 hours.

    After 24 hours, I got back on the horse. I realised that if I took a break, I would forget what I already had learned and that I would probably not want to take up the studies again, so I would have wasted all that money and effort and quit my job for nothing. I am lucky that I was in a position, financially, to jump right back in.

    I signed up the Monday after results were published and started studying 3 days later. In that 3 days, I thought long and hard about why I had failed and I realised that I had spent the whole course feeling like I did not quite understand the law properly. I did not have a 4 year JD just under my belt so I had a lot to understand. The Lectures give you a broad overview but they are SO LONG and felt like a waste of precious time. I HATED having no time to read through outlines in detail and understand, before doing exercises. My brain needs detail, to understand the whole picture. I decided to study full time and to stick with my Barbri books because I was familiar with them already. I bought the MBE book that was recommended by you, because I knew my MBE needed to improve drastically (we have no multiple choice testing in the UK), but in the end, I never had time to do the additional MBE book, so a waste of $70 for me.

    In terms of the schedule, I was nervous to leave the Barbri schedule behind completely but decided to start with the topics I found most difficult and spend whatever time I needed to get to grips with them, before starting the Barbri roster. Since we do not have constitutional law in England, I decided to start with that. I spent a whole week getting to grips with Con Law, then Crim Pro and then I attacked the other topics in order of Barbri. I read the convisor mini review and the long outlines if I did not understand. I would spend a whole day on the law (or more, as necessary, in the first round) and then a day on exercises, then move on. I figured I had until Christmas to complete the first round of all 14 topics. That averages out to 2 a week. As i studied, I amended in my own shorthand the short form outlines I had used in my previous attempt. Basically, I took the time to understand the law and write it out in a way that I understood, on a short (5 page) word document, so my brain could recall and visualise the notes.

    At some point around this time, my transcripts showed up and, with my new found knowledge of the law, I read them and LAUGHED at how little I had known in the first exam. I felt better about failing then, because I realised I had been a victim of Barbri’s methods, instead of doing what I knew was right for me.

    After NYE, I started the second round. Time pressure was on so I knew I had to do a topic every day, which I broke up into reading notes, then doing MBE, then doing essays. MBE took a long time to do because a major difference this time was that I read the explanatory answers at the end. ALL the answers, even the ones I got right. It helps to drill in the “IRAC” format and learn the nuances of right and wrong. It was slow going, it would take me a full day to do 3 MBE of 18 questions (and answers).

    The second round ended mid-January, then I started round 3, in which I tried to do more than one topic a day (usually 2) eg Civ Pro in the morning and Property in the afternoon. I would warm up with an MBE, then an essay and read my notes at the end, to see where I was forgetting the law.

    Among all of this, I had to improve my Performance Test, so from January I scheduled 1 in a week, 2 towards the end. I did one or 2 in full and then just started to do the prep and read the answer. PT is hard. I thought about taking the special course, but by this point I felt it would not fit in my schedule. I should have taken the PT prep course at the start of my studies, because it is really useful to be shown a method of how to annotate and mark up the work. I still did not have that down in my second attempt. Side bar: When I re-sat the exam, I was sat next to a US attorney who specialised in class actions. He had been my neighbour in the previous year’s exams. I was sure he had passed the exam the previous year, because our Performance Test question B was to write a letter in a class action suits and he had sniggered when he opened the test paper and saw it. So imagine my surprise when I saw him in the exam hall this year. Well, not only had he failed the exam, but he failed THAT QUESTION. That’s how ridiculous the performance test is, even if you do that work FOR A LIVING.

    I increased my topic review speed as the exam got closer. I sat at home and did MBE mock exams only. In February, I flew to LA again. I woke up at 4am to cram before exams. I walked to the exam with notes for weaker topics in my hand and read them in the seconds before I walked into the exam. We were tested on every single worst topic I had hoped would not come up. Wills, straight out the gate on day 1. Followed by remedies mixed with misrepresentation, which many examinees did not recognise (I did, because I did not to listen to lecturers telling us it would never come up. Phew). There was crim pro including entrapment and business. On both days, the first exam question was EXACTLY on the topic which I had just read in my notes as I walked in. In the evenings, I went home and took notes on the questions, in case I failed again, so I would know what I did wrong. I revised as best I could until 9pm when I would crash out, exhausted.

    After the exams, I went to Mexico for 2 months, to volunteer on a marine conservation project. I did not want to sit agonising for 2 months over something I had worked so hard for. I flew back the day the results came out, read the articles on how it was the worst pass rate for 30 years and steeled myself for another 6 months of work. When I logged in, I saw my name on the pass list and SCREAMED. Total relief.

    The exams take courage and determination and self-discipline. It is ok to do it once and then decide it is not for you, that is understandable. I think people who are ambivalent about being lawyers would really do well to consider this a check point. Law is not something you just “fall into” and this exam tests commitment. I effectively worked from 9am to 9pm, 7 days a week, for 3 months to prepare for the second attempt and pass.

    However, if you do want to be a lawyer, my opinion is: you have already invested this much and are in pain, why not get the reward?

    1. Kim, this is an amazing story! It feels great to see someone who took matters into her own hands and did what she needed to do. You had the courage to trust your preparation the second time rather than Barbri’s preparation. Unfortunately, this is what people only realize after being their prep course fails them.

      More than that, I’m so impressed by your determination and will to succeed. The quality of your preparation!

      Love it. Thanks for sharing. I’m surprised you were willing to recall this experience months after passing the February bar.

      1. Thanks Brian! I found reading your posts and other people’s stories on your website really helpful when I went through the second attempt, so if I can share my story and it helps someone else feel better/work smarter/get through, that’s awesome. It’s also the most rewarding feeling to have left everything you have all on the court, so I recommend that. You have to go a little Lebron James… Good luck to everyone sitting again, you’ve got this!

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