What If You Failed the Bar Exam? Should You Retake a Bar Review Course?

So you find yourself in an unbelievable situation: You failed the bar exam.

Procedure in case you failed the bar exam

Reality is undeniable. You dust off your tears. It’s time to take action.

You wonder: What’s the next step?

Should you retake your bar prep course? What’s the alternative? 

Let’s say you took one of those fancy bar review courses with Barbri, Themis, Kaplan, BarMax, or whatever. Grainy videos from 2012 and annoying “professors,” the works.

1) Should you retake your bar prep course if you failed the bar exam?

My recommendation is NO.

You’ve already taken the course, “trusted the process,” and it didn’t help you. Will anything change if you do the same thing again?

You could argue (because your parents said you should go to law school as a euphemism for being an argumentative troll) that you have the requisite background now. Therefore, you say, retaking the course should help!

Well, if you have the background now, you don’t NEED the course. That’s what the course was for in the first place—to spoonfeed you a structured introduction to the material.

You might even end up:

  • Passively watching lectures (or worse, pausing the video to take notes and doubling the time spent)
  • Cramming all the pre-set assignments (and don’t even think about changing them to fit your needs, or taking a day off lest you fall behind permanently)
  • Going to bed clasping your hands over your chest welcoming the void… (again)

This is the worst thing you could do as a repeater. Anyone who thinks passively absorbing information is all they need to do to have clarity and success will not find such things falling from the sky. A nice view of the clouds all day.

You could activate the repeater version of the course as a reference if they offer it for free. Otherwise, there’s no need to pay for it unless there’s something you really want, like essay grading.

Also, don’t jump onto a different course, as if using a different tennis racquet will let you beat Serena Williams. Rather, it’s your technique with the racquet and how you train.

I know nothing about sports, so let me spell it out for you if that metaphor didn’t make sense:

All courses “work” (even though some courses like Kaplan Bar Review suck more than others). It’s not where you dump your money that really makes the difference.

Change your approach to bar prep if you hope to make significant improvements.

"I asked you if I should re-take a “big” standard bar course, and you mentioned I should pay attention to my studying strategy instead. I completely agree, and I’m also planning on investing in AdaptiBar."

(Use these insightful study tools if you want to study like Zach.)

2) So what’s the alternative? Is there another way to go about studying for the bar exam?

Independent study.

Realize that studying for the bar exam is, at its core, self-study. All resources out there are merely there to support your own learning. That includes bar review courses.

This doesn’t mean courses are bad. They can and do work for many people! It depends on whether it fits your learning style as well as your thoughtfulness and effort. Just “going through” a course won’t automatically turn you into ChatGPT scoring in the 90th percentile.

(Or tutoring or coaching if you need personal help, which I won’t get into here. You can find guest articles by tutors here if you’re looking to vet one.)

Similarly, this doesn’t always mean putting together your own resources and curriculum is the optimal approach for you, although this certainly can work very well…

Actually, this works often! Try asking 10 repeaters how they passed. Maybe 1 person will say “I owe it all to Barbri/Themis!” (Same energy as “just study for the MPRE the weekend before! It’s easy LOL”)

It means being more conscious and deliberate about HOW you use the resources you have (including using a bar review course properly if you’re enrolled in one).

More and more, it appears like self-directed studying is the way to go to lower costs and improve a bar taker’s chances of passing. Bar takers (especially repeaters) are disillusioned with bloated courses and are putting together their own curriculum.

As they should! You’re the dean of your own studies.

For example, I took Kaplan and failed the first time. Then I passed with used Barbri books and other references. I watched Kaplan’s MBE bootcamp review with Chris Fromm at the beginning of my studies, but that’s the only set of lectures I watched.

Notice I didn’t watch videos and take notes every day and call it studying. I already made the mistake of doing that the first time around. If I’m going to sit still for that long, I’d rather meditate and get my life in order.

Simply put, I used what I thought would help me learn, not what the courses told me I should consume. Just because it’s structured doesn’t mean it’s the right structure for you. I tried different things based on what I personally needed help with and avoided what didn’t work (such as most but not all videos). Bar prep is personal!

Otherwise, my stance is that a $2,000+ course as a default and not as a conscious decision has negative worth because—instead of helping you go at your pace—they are often a distraction from actually understanding what the hell you’re learning, implementing it in practice, and actively building your skills.

The bar exam doesn’t just test you on how to recognize or even remember rules. It tests you on USING them correctly.

Is it worth the price to have Barbri or Themis on your side? To answer that for yourself, consider what they provide and whether it’s what you need.

  • I don’t doubt that they’re great programs overall. They come with structure and excellent written materials such as outlines and essay workbooks. They give you a good overview of WHAT to study. But they don’t really teach you HOW to study (which I cover here at MTYLT and in Passer’s Playbook).
  • If the cookie-cutter approach didn’t work for you LAST time, it’s probably not going to work for you THIS time unless your situation has changed (see exceptions below).
  • Understand that big box courses should be considered a premium luxury option, like flying first class, not a default option for every situation. We have a psychological tic where we think that simply paying a lot of money will automatically create change. 

These big course companies MADE SURE you knew about them since the first day you stepped into law school, so it’s understandable to think it’s “the path” and not even consider that there are other ways to learn or enhance the course. This is like when you figure that the talkative and confident person must be right—but it turns out they were ad-libbing and pretending to know what they were doing.

If the “safe path” lets you down, who can you rely on? Yourself!

When SHOULD you consider retaking your bar review course if you failed last time?

Exception 1: Your life situation changed. Let’s say last time you were too busy working full time or just started a family and couldn’t get through much of the course last time. Or the last time you took the bar exam was 10 years ago. Now you find yourself with a lot more attention to spare.

Time is not the most valuable asset; your attention is.

Exception 2: You know your learning style and truly learn best by listening. Not the delusional “oh, psh yeah, I can hear something once and remember it forever” kind of people who then can’t remember anything on the exam, let alone apply what they think they remember.

Exception 3: You were not close to passing, in which case you probably could use some remedial help. Using the lectures as a review or sleep aid won’t hurt as long as you’re making the time for practice.

In no circumstance, however, should you go through it again from start to finish as a first resort. Like when you’re at a buffet, take only what you need and be aware of your intake capacity.

It’s not just about “memorizing the law.” That’s just the minimum requirement. It’s table stakes, the cost of entry. Everyone’s doing it.

Instead, you want to be practicing (AKA testing yourself AKA doing what you’ll do on the actual exam) and studying model answers and explanations (the “ground truth”). There are past exams from your state bar website (or go here for past essays and PTs for California and UBE).

Resources are only useful if you use them to solve practice questions and review your work. The more you do the uncomfortable work and reflect on your mistakes, the more you’ll improve.

As always, the choice is yours. Just don’t let the fancy videos draw you toward the flame. Bar prep doesn’t have to be expensive.

3) “Should I start studying for the next bar exam now or…?”

Some people study early before results to hedge themselves just in case they failed the bar. If they pass, the most they lose is the time studied. And it would be a trivial loss at that point. If they end up failing, they’re that much ahead and familiar with the material.

Personally, I think the ideal length of time to study is 3-4 full-time months, 5 months max if you have a part-time study schedule.

This is enough time to master the material without feeling burned out, demotivated, or maybe even unable to retain the material as everything blends together over time. Here’s who should study early.

But you know yourself best.

If you have the extra time, perhaps it would be prudent to plan ahead, count backward from the exam date, and start crafting a study schedule that focuses on your deficiencies.

You could also brush up on your weakest subjects.

Or study performance tests because it’s a skill-based portion of the exam that’s harder to forget (like riding a bike) than issues and rules. Plus you’re more likely to neglect the PTs later when you’re in the thick of essay and MBE prep. My study tools come with a PT Toolkit that gives you step-by-step guidance on kicking ass on the PTs.

Many ways to go about this. There’s no one set way. You don’t need to follow some formulaic regimen when you can get personal with the exam. Bar prep is personal.

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