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 a 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, and it didn’t help you. Will anything change if you do the same thing again?

Passively watching lectures (or worse, pausing the video to take notes and doubling the time spent), doing the pre-set assignments, going to bed clasping your hands over your chest hoping to die in your sleep…

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.

You could activate the repeater version of the course as a reference if they offer it for free. Otherwise, don’t pay for it unless there’s something you really want, like essay grading.

Also, don’t pay for a different course as if using a different tennis racquet will let you beat Serena Williams. Rather, it’s your technique with using 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.

2) So what’s the alternative?

Independent study. Studying for the bar exam is, at its core, self-study. All resources out there are merely there to support your learning.

(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 for one.)

This doesn’t always mean putting together your own resources and curriculum, although this certainly can work.

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 repeater’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. I tried different things based on what I personally needed help with. 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, and they come with structure and excellent written materials such as outlines and essay workbooks. They give you a good overview of WHAT to study…though not really HOW to study (which I cover at MTYLT).

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). We have a psychological tic where we think that simply paying a lot of money will automatically create change. Understand that big box courses should be considered a premium luxury option, like flying first class, not a default option for every situation.

Also, these courses often need to be supplemented with other a la carte resources specific to your issues. AdaptiBar is a popular supplement for the MBE, for example. You can also streamline the massive amounts of materials using condensed outlines like Magicsheets and issue roadmaps for essays like Approsheets.

(These companies made sure you knew about them ever since you stepped into law school, so it’s understandable to think it’s “the path,” and that there’s no other way.)

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: You were very close to passing, in which case you probably don’t need the lectures anymore. But using the lectures as a review or sleep aid won’t hurt as long as you’re making the time for practice.

Exception 2: Your life situation changed. Let’s say you were working full time or just started a family and couldn’t get through much of the course. Now you find yourself with a lot more attention to spare (time is not the most valuable asset; your attention is).

Exception 3: 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 jack on a serious exam, let alone apply what they remember in theory.

It’s not just about “learning the law.” That’s 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). There are past exams from your state bar (or go here for past essays and PTs).

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 light. Bar prep doesn’t have to be expensive.

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

Some people study between 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. It’s 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.

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.

But if you want to follow along with me, sign up for my weekly emails below. You’ll also get goodies like discount codes for AdaptiBar, UWorld, and BarEssays (CA only), and my free and not-that-lengthy guide on bar prep dos and don’ts:
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