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

Bar exam results.

Tens of thousands across the country face them time and time again. Hope and despair, rinse and repeat.

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

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

Then… the ruthless truth. This is the result of all their work, condensed into one screen. It declares that their efforts were not enough.

Maybe for the first time, a humbling moment. Maybe not your first time, even more painful. 

How do you face your family and friends? How do you face yourself?

You “trusted the system.” What needs to be changed?

"The more I review, the more I realize what a waste of time the big bar prep programs are. . . . Never will I 'trust the process.'"


This is a hazing process, but you can win if you know the rules

You feel exhausted by this process.

It’s tempting to come up with different reasons: Your life situation isn’t ideal for studying (you may have kids, a full-time 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 feel doubts that you’re incompetent, not fit for the law. Maybe all of the above.

Worst of all, it’s costly—not just in terms of money but time and energy.

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

Right now, it doesn’t matter “why” you feel stuck. The one thing that matters RIGHT NOW is getting back on your feet.

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

Maybe you look back and notice it’s actually sitting still for 4 hours listening to someone drone on is why you’re so tired. Maybe it’s because you’re getting distracted by other unimportant things. Maybe you realize you know the law but don’t know how to use the law.

Defeat is fodder for your next victory. If you can graduate from 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. 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.

Trusting in yourself to decide what works for you

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 think we need things that actually complicate our lives and impose 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 necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. 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…”

It takes guts to admit you made a wrong choice.

After all, you spent a lot of time comparing Barbri, Themis, Kaplan, BarMax… You made paid a lot of money for it. It’s what you were supposed to do like everyone else.

So you’re gonna keep that nagging thought to yourself. When everyone else is going in 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 the “big box” prep courses like Barbri (or whichever company you prefer). And it’s easier said than done to abandon the bloat. Maybe it’s a good idea to use a bar review course to structure your approach, as long as you know how to use it correctly (and not let it use you).

We have this psychological tic that says the more we pay for something, or the more complex the thing is, the more effective it’s going to be. In fact, just the act of paying can make us think we’re doing something.

But I just think it would serve you well to look at one of the many other available paths because there’s no one set path! Yes, taking a big course is one way to pass, but there are many 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.

Independently self-studying for the bar exam

I followed Kaplan’s program to a tee the first time. I was getting frazzled and stressed in the process. I failed the California Bar Exam.

I went lean my second time. It was more simplified. I did what helped me learn. It’s about learning, not education. My mom said I looked happier. I passed the California bar.

I was “serious” both times, but it was much more effective the second time when I intentionally did things that made sense to me 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). It’s more about the mentality of learning—expending mental effort 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 time you have. 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 and the skills to apply the material.

Yes, 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 consuming the outlines while avoiding using their contents.

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 to help you fall asleep.

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.

You’re in control of your own bar exam preparation

Barbri actually doesn’t control your schedule and approach. You do! You’re the dean of your own studies.

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 the cookie-cutter regimen. People have failed with the exact same regimen. Their one-size-fits-all schedule shouldn’t be the same in the first place when people have different lives and responsibilities.

How does it make sense to have the same study schedule for a 20-something with nothing to do and a parent working at the same time? When everyone has different strengths and weaknesses?

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 at your disposal.

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.

How to get motivated to study

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, 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.”

If you’re already on my email list, 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 famous weekly emails along with coupons for AdaptiBar and BarEssays (plus a short guide) 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. But I also encourage you to think about how to apply imperfect advice to your own personal situation.

Maybe it’s just me, but I always get skeptical when someone says “trust me.” Trust yourself and your preparation. I want to empower you to be confident in your own decisions.

Three months from now, what will you wish you’d been learning today?

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13 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!

    2. Wow, hum…WOW!
      I didn’t have any money, so I just bought the Barbri books. That summer, they told all the kids not to worry, there had never been a single Trusts and Estates question on our state bar in its entire history. They were right, there were two. Now having worked on my own, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I knew it was unlikely to encounter such a question, so the first topic I studied was Trusts and Estates way back in the beginning of May, 1989. In the later stages of July, time was running out and I realized I hadn’t looked at it since May, so I did a quick review. Well as luck would have it, I brought my lunch to the bar. While everyone else was away swapping stories, I was fidgeting at the entrance to the exam hall. I had a TOWER of books with me, which is ridiculous, and castigated myself several times for opening them. Then I remembered, “I know almost nothing about Trusts and Estates, maybe I’ll look at those outlines.” As the afternoon essays were handed out, and we were allowed to open the books, there was as stunned silence in the room. All I remember was a horror stricken female voice saying “Oh God NO.” I passed, and it was the lowest passing rate in the state’s history up until that time.

      Sometimes it is better to be irrationally persistent and lucky than to be good. I passed because I was a blend of innocent, arrogant, optimistic, paranoid and completely petrified.

  2. I’m going to try to erase all ego and boasting from my post and give you the straight skinny. Only about 3% of the materials on the bar are difficult, the rest is like wading across an ocean only six inches deep. Anyone can do it but there’s just so much volume it’s unbearable. Therefore, what you are paying your bar review company for is to narrow it down for you. You only need three things to pass: you need to learn the black letter law, you need to learn the WRONG answers on the MBE, and as you pointed out, you need to learn how, for example, a Contracts essay is organized and how they weave multiple issues into one question. So how do we do this?

    Buy a cheap Conviser summary outline and read it. Make flash cards for difficult to memorize items. I like flashcards because you can winnow the stack down by discarding stuff you know. Get a subscription to Adaptibar. It’s an MBE simulator. Read a subject in your summary outline and sit down and answer questions in Ameribar. Take notes on answers you don’t know, but here’s the secret folks, take notes on all the clever WRONG answers. Right answers are nice for learning the law, but you are never going to see this question again, they don’t reuse them. What you will see is another question on the same subject, and that correct answer will be surrounded with EXACTLY the same Wrong answers. You see, wrong answers are used all the time, all the way back to the 1970s, and if you pay attention and savor their diabolical flavor, you will be a MBE God. I am taking the Feb. 2019 bar. I have a doomsday book with seven chapters of wrong answers for the MBE. I’m batting around 75% already and I have over 8 months left. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s my favorite part of the day.

    Essays: Download all the essays you can and sit down and read them. It’s helpful to do a lot of practice essays because this will help with the clock in your head, but let’s face it, the job is to wade across an ocean and this kind of practice will wipe you out for the rest of the day so don’t overdue things just because some coach who makes her money teaching how her essay practice will save your life says this is the way to go. It’s not. Studicata has a very cheap $80 service where they give you the most important rules statements for MEE essays and a breakdown of their occurrence on the last two decades of tests. I tried to do this myself and soon realized it would take several years. For $80, you have less than ten pages of rules statements for each subject and they will get you through the test. Copy and study the grading sheets for the essays. Do you SEE any points being awarded for making up a rule? You make up rules when you fail. Yes you have to do it to continue with the essay, but don’t confuse hopping out of your car during the Indy 500 to manually change a tire with a winning strategy. Lay out all your contracts essays. Note how they tie in the differing issues. Pay attention to the organization, that’s what the graders are searching for. KNOW WHAT YOUR JURISDICTION WANTS. If it’s California, it’s IRAC or a sharp stick in the eyes. LITERALLY the same essay will receive a lower grade because of form. Mark up your Studicata materials and enjoy. I’m 520 hours in and just getting up to speed. I took the bar 28 years ago. I didn’t have any money, and I was working full time, so I just bought the Barbri books and read them, the long outlines. That’s it, no practice essays, no practice MBE, no lectures, not advice, but somehow I passed.

    This time around I gave myself a year. I spent about 100 hours on the NCBE site and various blogs learning the ropes. A lot of bar review courses just copy each other and don’t know squat. Many of them give BAD advice. Spend time to learn the distractors on the MBE, get a feel for the pace of the test. Take delight in every time those stinking sneaky bastards trick you, there are only so many tricks, and they use them over and over again. I could go on all day on the MBE, but that’s my method: Outline, Adaptibar with extensive notes, lay out those essays with Studicata and enjoy. I also listen to audio lectures during my commute, and I suggest you do too during your down time. Good luck.

  3. PS: History Lesson: PMBR and others got caught with a lot of bar questions in their materials and got sued up the ying yang for copyright infringement. Now you know why the top two companies don’t use released questions. If they are still sending employees into the tests, they won’t get sued because they are not using their actual questions (and you thought they were just cheap). Then came REVENGE OF THE BAR EXAMINERS. Instead of just ten pretest questions, we now have 25, however there are also ten different forms for the test. This means the Examiners have a pool of 500 tested prelim questions from which to cycle out the old scored questions. The end result is questions are not on the test long enough for cheaters to steal them. This also means the strategy today for most review courses is to throw EVERYTHING at you, give you some scare stories, and then tell you to get to work. Conveniently, this shifts the blame back on their students for failure in what you paid them several thousand dollars to do, tell them what’s important and help them to pass. The very idea that you can study for this test in 9 weeks is silly, but to tie you up for seven of those weeks in lectures is criminal. It creates a herd mentality so nobody ever questions the practice, but almost every student reports the last two weeks of prep when they are cut loose from the course are the most productive. (Maybe, just maybe, we should go our own way a little earlier).

  4. The audio interview “The Barbri Regret” was terrible. Is there any way you can edit it so that the speakers actually complete a sentence? It was difficult to follow along with all of the “likes” and incomplete thoughts.

  5. Hi Kim, this was an awesome post, thank you. I have never commented on a thread, but this was very helpful..

    I am a UK qualified lawyer too, self studying for February 2022 California bar for second time… Failed October 2020 with the highest passing rate ever (ouch….) and gave up for a year, but changed my mind! Giving it another shot. I completely relate to having to not having a JD and learning some subjects from scratch and the fact that I really didn’t know what on earth was going on in Civ Pro and Con law or evidence for that matter… Lol.

    This time round I have been constantly debating if I should bite the bullet and sign up for Barbri etc. But this helped me stick to my guns and just keep at it with practice essays/ MBEs. After all, feel like I know the ‘BLL’ much better now and just need to practice applying/articulating it.

    Congratulations to you on becoming dual qualified – I know its been a while now, but still :) Hoping I will get there too.

    All the best!

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