Bar exam results. Tens of thousands across the country face them time and time again. Hope and despair, rinse and repeat.
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 the hardest part. Uncertainty is being locked in a padded room alone with delusions of hopes and worries.
Then… the ruthless truth. This is the result of all your work, condensed into one screen.
It has declared that your 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 results were humbling. I’m sorry. This was everything to you.
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—not just in terms of money but time and energy.
It’s tempting to think that this is a result of different 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 pass rate is too low. The MBE is getting trickier. Essays are getting more complicated. Issues are subtle. Or maybe you feel 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
Right now, it doesn’t matter “why.” The one thing that matters RIGHT NOW is getting back on your feet.
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. 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 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…”
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” prep 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.
We think we need things that actually complicate our lives and impose obligations on us.
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.
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.
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.
Pros and cons of using a bar prep course
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:
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! 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.
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 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).
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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.
Three months from now, what will you wish you’d been learning today?