Choosing a Bar Review Course

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Law schools do not prepare students to take bar exams. At best, students are offered law courses, such as Domestic Relations and Trusts & Estates, which rely on the type of local law that bar exams do test. This is especially true of the local law schools, as opposed to the national ones, which utilize majority view, model law or federal rules when discussing legal principles. As a consequence, the commercial bar review industry was developed to meet students' unmet need of having to learn local law and learn it fast to be successful on the bar exam.

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Distilled to their essence, the review courses provide students with the most up-to-date version of the law tested on a given bar exam. They provide sample questions, either from old exams or questions constructed in the style of a bar exam; and they give guidance on test-taking techniques, study habits and scheduling. This is true for general review courses, as well as those which specialize in particular parts of the exam, for example, MBE preparation courses.

Going It Alone

Some people do choose to go it alone and forego the traditional bar review course. They are rarely first-time takers, who typically need the structure, guidance and materials provided by the review courses. They are most often candidates who have previously taken a bar exam and who have previously experienced the challenges of preparation. If you decide against taking a bar review course, make sure you have the following:
  • Practice questions and/or old exams;
  • Updated legal information;
  • Sufficient intestinal fortitude to stay the course

You can get sample questions and model answers from previous exams from your state boards of bar examiners. As noted earlier, candidates can get sample MBE questions from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Your local law library can provide access to the most recent pronouncements on the areas of law that will be tested on the bar exam. In certain instances, the search may be facilitated by legal publishing houses which can now provide the law of certain jurisdictions on CD-ROM. For example, Butterworth Legal Publishers will provide CDs on thirty-four (34) jurisdictions, including Virgin Islands law. Their number is (800) 542-0957. Lawyers Cooperative Publishing will provide CDs on New York and federal law. They can be reached at (800) 762-5272. West Publishing similarly provides CDs for New York. Call them at (800) 255-2549, ext. 175.

In addition, there are review courses for in-home use which offer study programs for the bar exam to be used on your personal computer. They provide outlines, lectures, teaching questions, and bar simulations. The costs vary and program availability tends to be limited to a few states. Law school newspapers often run advertisements for these courses. Check Reed Law Group, discussed below. They provide in-home study programs, along with the more traditional course. For the CD-ROM or in-home programs, you will obviously need access to a personal computer, one with CD-ROM capabilities.

A Review of the Reviews

If you do choose to take a bar review course, do your homework first. I am often asked to recommend a bar review course. My response is always the same. Take the course which best fits your personality and study style. You hear about the courses while in law school. You see their tables in the school lobby or student lounge. Many courses have student representatives who may seek you out. If you are out of law school, you can check your local legal periodical or write to the bar examiners. Although they will not endorse particular courses, the Board may distribute lists of them.

Check the courses out before signing up. There are review courses for the "intellectual" which give you more "black letter law" than you need to practice law, let alone, to pass the bar exam. Other courses will have reviewed prior exams and the areas which have been tested to predict which subjects and legal principles will appear on up-coming exams. There are bar review courses which specialize in various types of exam techniques, e.g., mnemonic devices. And some bar courses try to combine elements of all the above and then some.

Notwithstanding the variations, most of these courses have the same basic structure.

There are two parts to most bar review courses, live or taped lectures on the substantive law and practice questions to be answered under simulated exam conditions and mailed in for grading. The lectures are the core of most courses. Unlike law school, there is little class participation. The majority of the time will consist of note-taking while listening to 3-4 hour lectures. Each lecture will usually begin with a hypothetical question. The remainder of the lecture could involve the analysis and resolution of the question using applicable legal principles. Although there may be preparatory chapters which can be read prior to a lecture, the lecture notes are the primary teaching tools and repetition is the key to learning.

First, you read the designated courses materials before class. Then the same information is presented to you by a law school professor or practitioner during the lecture. You take relevant notes on it. You hear a discussion of it. When you go
home, you review the information, rewrite it and outline it.

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The mail-in essay questions continue the repetition, by testing the student's understanding of the relevant legal principles. Answering the mail-in questions may seem a painful experience, but it is extremely worthwhile. Your scores will be low at first (partly because course administrators don't want you to get too confident too early); and sometimes the comments (which graders are encouraged to write plenty of) may not seem too fair or accurate. The exercise is nevertheless quite beneficial, in that your grade lets you see how you stand in relation to your peers. Practice exams are graded on the same scale as the bar exam. If the essay is graded from 1-10, your practice exam will be returned with an overall score using the same scale. You will also see how that score was arrived at. You will see what part of your answer was worth a point, what part was worth half a point and so on. The exercise also provides you the opportunity to determine the areas you have mastered and the extent to which you need to deal with exam anxiety.

Some courses offer students the opportunity to take a simulated bar exam. Take it if offered. Up until that point, students may have had only their past performance on law school exams to predicate their future performance on the bar exam. Your response to the bar exam may be quite different. One student recalls that during the MBE, "the questions began to float off the page." She had not previously sat through a full day of MBEs and was not prepared for the fatigue, boredom and anxiety she would later experience. A "dry run" will inform you of ways in which the pressures may affect you. Knowing what to expect allows you to plan ahead.

Take cost, for instance. These courses are not cheap. Shop around before you buy. The costs can start around $1,000 for the basics and with "extras," those costs can increase by up to another $1500. The extras can be obtained as an adjunct to a larger course or through an independent program. Many programs offer repeater courses, multistate workshops, essay writing workshops, special lectures for out-of-state students and for those taking two exams, and a class on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE).

Take advantage of "trial" offers before you put your money down and if money is an object, find out about scholarships, discounts for those going into public service, and employment as a bar review sales representative. This way you can get the course for free or at a discount and receive a bounty for each student you sign up. For example, West Bar Review, the "new kid on the block" is hiring student representatives. To apply, contact West at (212) 535-6811. A prospective employer may pay for the course. One student in need of funds was able to get his local bar association to guarantee payment which he would make when he started his post-exam employment. Be creative. All they can say is no, and they just might say yes.

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