It’s that time of year again! 3Ls everywhere are either enjoying their last semester of school ever or scrambling to learn all of Securities Regulation in the few days before finals. And somewhere in the back of their minds, the black box of bar prep looms in the distance.
I graduated from law school in May 2018, sat for the California Bar Exam in July, found out that I passed the Friday before Thanksgiving (a cruel joke of timing played by the State Bar every November), and was sworn in as an attorney in December.
As the first person in my family tree to attend law school, let alone be a lawyer, I remember all too well the feeling of self-doubt, confusion, and anxiety that set in once I started bar prep. I hadn’t taken Real Property or Evidence during law school, and I definitely believed I had forgotten everything I learned in 1L. How in the world would I learn 13 subjects in 2 months??
Now, a year later, I want to share with you the mistakes made, lessons learned, and what I would do differently if I could rewind to my first day of bar prep.
Before I begin, I’d like to give a quick shout out to Brian Hahn of Make This Your Last Time (MTYLT). I relied heavily on his Magicsheets and Approsheets, which I describe in more detail below. He’s written about virtually every aspect of preparing for the California Bar Exam, from study skills, technical breakdown of essays, and exam day mindset. Be sure to check out his website and sign up for his newsletter! (I have no financial affiliation with Brian or MTYLT. I just think his bar prep resources are great!)
I’d also like to make a very important disclaimer — my experience will not be the same as your experience, and I’m not claiming that my approach is the one and only way to pass the California Bar Exam. Rather, I hope that this post can help demystify the nuts and bolts of preparing for the exam.
What do I need to know about the California Bar Exam?
According to the State Bar, the California Bar Exam is given twice each year in February and July (click here and here for details). The exam is given over two days and consists of the following parts:
- Five one-hour essay questions
- One 90-minute Performance Test
- 200 multiple-choice questions (the “Multistate Bar Examination” or “MBE”)
The written portion of the examination (essay questions and Performance Test) is administered on the first day, with three essay questions given in the morning session and two essay questions plus the Performance Test given in the afternoon session. The MBE is administered on the second day, with 100 questions given in the morning and 100 questions given in the afternoon.
The examination covers 13 subjects, including Business Associations, Civil Procedure, Community Property, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Professional Responsibility, Real Property, Remedies, Torts, Trusts and Wills and Succession.
So, the California Bar Exam consists of three parts, and I’ve listed my key takeaways regarding each part below:
- Five one-hour essay questions
- All 13 subjects are fair game.
- Because the essays are California-specific, you’ll need to know California law regarding these subjects.
- Very IRAC-heavy and formulaic.
- One 90-minute Performance Test
- Designed to “test an applicant’s ability to handle a select number of legal authorities in the context of a factual problem involving a client.”
- A Performance Test question consists of two separate sets of materials, a “file” with instructions and various client facts that will be used to solve the problem, along with a “library” of cases and/or statutes that provides the law that will be used to solve the problem.
- Probably the most realistic, lawyer-like part of the Bar Exam because tasks may include writing a legal memorandum, persuasive brief, client letter, etc.
- 200 multiple-choice questions (the “Multistate Bar Examination” or “MBE”)
- Just the MBE subjects (Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts) will be tested.
- Because the MBE is utilized across various jurisdictions in the United States, you’ll only need to know federal law regarding these subjects.
Putting it all together, this means that you’ll need to know both California and federal law for the subjects that appear on the MBE, and you’ll only need to know California law for those subjects that appear in the essays but not on the MBE. (There’s some conversation around the extent to which you actually need to know the differences between California and federal law for the essays, but I won’t open that can of worms today.)
Crap, what if I didn’t learn these subjects during law school?
In case you were curious, the subjects I took in law school were: Corporations (which is included under Business Associations), Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Professional Responsibility, and Torts. Perhaps more importantly, the subjects I had not taken were Community Property, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, Remedies, and Trusts and Wills and Succession.
As any law student can tell you, I basically took the required 1L courses and not much more, so I was learning a crap ton for the first time. While this definitely was a challenge, I wouldn’t tell my 1L self to maximize my 2L and 3L course loads to include these missing subjects.
For one, taking these subjects during law school wouldn’t necessarily provide a strategic advantage during bar prep. The way that subjects are taught in law school is vastly different from the way that subjects are taught for purposes of the Bar Exam. In addition, I was grateful to spend the limited time I had in law school to take subjects I was actually interested in (sorry, Evidence).
Let me know if you’d like me to write a post on this point, suffice it to say that I wouldn’t freak out if you didn’t take all of these subjects during law school.
Learning to trust myself over Themis
After graduating in mid-May, I took about 1-2 weeks off to decompress from the craziness of graduation and move back home to California. Looking back on my study schedule, I see that I officially started studying on May 24.
However, after a few days, I quickly realized that the Themis study schedule wasn’t working for me. While I liked that the video lectures were broken up into 20-30 minute chunks and that my daily schedule automatically adjusted depending on my progress from the previous day, my dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all program pushed me to create my own study plan.
For example, I know that I am a visual learner and that I learn best by practicing. One thing I didn’t like about Themis was the way it allocated time between watching lectures, reading outlines, practicing multiple choice and essay questions, and reviewing. I also felt like the sheer number and volume of tasks was unreasonable (and honestly, counterproductive past a certain point) for the average person to complete. A simple Google search for “Themis” and “75%” will show the reality that not all students complete 100%, let alone 75%, of the program.
This isn’t to completely poo-poo Themis — I vastly prefer Themis to other bar prep courses because of its short video lecture structures and adaptive daily schedule. However, I was fortunate enough that my post-graduation employer (a big law firm) paid for my bar prep expenses and that Themis threw in a free iPad for registering with their company. (I gave my mom the free iPad, so it was a win-win for both of us!) If I was paying out-of-pocket, the calculus would have been vastly different.
All in all, the first 10 days of studying ended up being a wash because I started with Themis’ method, realized it wasn’t optimal for me, and spent a few days freaking out and reorienting myself. After doing some more research into the resources that were available, I created a new plan and got a fresh start on June 3.
What tools did I use during bar prep?
Now with all that out of the way, what was my game plan? This is where Themis comes in. If you’ve already cracked open your bar prep materials from Themis or from any other bar prep company, you’ll see that you were given a literal box of books filled with long outlines, short outlines, video lecture outlines with fill-in-the-blanks, practice questions, etc.
Spoiler alert is that I didn’t utilize any of these materials. Rather, I wanted to ensure that each tool I used during bar prep had a specific purpose that directly connected to the exam.
(1) Crash course overview (Themis video lectures)
To learn new subjects and relearn old subjects, I watched the Themis lectures at a faster speed (usually 1.5x or 1.75x) without taking any notes. The purpose of watching these lectures was to get a quick and dirty overview of the subjects, not to become an expert on the law.
This was essentially the only part of the Themis program that I used, and I definitely would not have signed up for Themis if I was paying out of pocket. I’ve heard good reviews about Barbri’s Conviser Mini Review (CMR) book as a way to learn the law on a budget, but I can’t vouch for it personally.
(2) Create an outline for each subject (Magicsheets and Approsheets)
After quickly watching the Themis lectures, I used Brian Hahn’s Magicsheets and Approsheets as a jumping off point for creating my personalized outline for each subject. Brian describes Magicsheets as “condensed outlines with 95% of the issues and rules you need to know for essays and the MBE in 5% of the length of a traditional bar outline,” and describes Approsheets as “condensed essay attack sheets (templates in checklist and flowchart formats) that help you identify the relevant issues in an essay via systematic issue checking. Go from a blank page to a finished essay or outline.”
The purposes of the Magicsheets and Approsheets were to:
- Save time: You don’t have time to go through all 800 pages of outlines. Learn the most important law in 50 pages.
- Find what’s important: Easy-to-spot important rules, elements, and issues (bolded or italicized).
- Provide organization that makes sense: Nested format that promotes top-level main issues and demotes exceptions and nuances. Tables for easy comparison of related concepts when appropriate.
- Find those pesky distinctions: Easy-to-spot jurisdictional distinctions, e.g., FRE vs. CA, ABA vs. CA, majority vs. minority law, common law.
- Help you practice: Comprehensive issues and complete rules organized for quick reference so you can answer MBE questions, issue check for essays / know how to get an essay started, or even base your own outlines on them.
The last bullet was key for me. The Magicsheets provided a finite list of testable issues and bare bones rule statements that contained the entire universe of what I needed to know for each subject. The Approsheets further condensed and organized the information from the Magicsheets into an easy-to-follow attack outline for the essays.
So, working off the Approsheets as a skeleton outline and referencing the Magicsheets for the rules, I created an attack outline for each subject with full (or nearly full) sentence rule statements for each issue. For example, see below for a comparison of the original Approsheets Evidence outline vs. my Evidence attack outline:
One thing I would change about my bar prep process is that I would have pulled rule statements from a single source. One of many mistakes I made during bar prep was constantly comparing different rule statements and trying to reconcile minor differences in wording to come to the “best” (whatever that means) rule statement. If anything, this added unnecessary stress to the bar prep process, because reconciling three slightly different wordings of the same rule was not an efficient use of time or energy. My advice is to pick a single source for your rule statements (whether from Magicsheets, Critical Pass Flashcards, or even your Themis or Barbri outlines) and stick with it.
Also, don’t feel pressured to have a perfect outline at this point — I continued to refer back to and refine my outlines as I practiced (see next section), and this process of practicing questions and refining my outlines is how I learned (and eventually memorized) the key issues and rule statements for the exam.
(3) Practice, practice, practice (BarEssays.com, Emanuel Strategies & Tactics, AdaptiBar)
As you can probably tell by now, watching the Themis video lectures was a small portion of my bar prep experience, and the vast majority of the time was spent outlining, practicing questions, and refining my outlines along the way.
Essays and Performance Test
For the essay questions, I subscribed to BarEssays.com, a database of “3000+ essay examples, including both high and low scoring essay answers to more than 200 different essay questions. All of our essays are actual graded and returned California Bar Exam essays and include every tested subject. We provide you with high scoring essays, low scoring essays, barely passing essays, and everything in-between.”
BarEssays.com has two tiers of subscriptions. A standard subscription provides access to the website until the conclusion of the upcoming California Bar Exam, and a premium subscription includes “model answers for every essay question tested since 2005, in addition to over 300 professional bar grader reviews of essays and performance exams in the database, all written by former official graders of the California Bar Exam . . . Every premium subscription to BarEssays.com includes a full set of the BarEssays.com Short Review Outlines, Checklists, and Essay Attack Templates.”
I got the premium subscription primarily for the model answers and professional bar grader reviews of the essays and Performance Tests. I found these resources to be incredibly helpful and worth the additional $50 to upgrade from a standard to premium subscription. I personally didn’t find the Short Review Outlines, Checklists, and Essay Attack Templates very helpful because I found the Magicsheets and Approsheets to be superior in their organization and condensation of the key issues and rule statements.
When I first started practicing essay questions, I referred back to my personalized outlines and didn’t stress about timing myself. The goal was to test my outlines against real essay questions and tweak them as I practiced more.
As I became more confident in my outlines and exam day grew nearer, I shifted to timing myself and not referring to my outlines for full 60-minute essays. Sometimes I would simply spend 10 minutes outlining my answer (not writing out the full essay) and comparing my rough outline against the model answers.
(Note: Themis offered individualized grading services and their own model answers for select essay questions, but I never utilized this service for a few reasons:
First, from a timing standpoint, I personally found it faster to compare my answers against the various graded essays and the model answers on BarEssays.com.
Second, I found it more helpful to refer to the detailed comments provided in the professional bar grader reviews of the essays and performance tests, because they are all written by actual former official graders of the California Bar Exam. In contrast, Themis only offers “a licensed attorney who grades your essays and provides you with detailed feedback.” I’m a licensed attorney, and I don’t think that my feedback on your practice essay would be nearly as helpful as former official graders’ feedback on a variety of actual essays from the exam.)
Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)
I’ll start by telling you why I didn’t use Themis’ MBE questions as my primary resource for the MBE.
First, as far as I know, most bar prep companies don’t offer “real” MBE questions, but rather offer their own made-up MBE-like questions for practice. What do I mean by “real” MBE questions? JD Advising writes that “Real MBE questions are those that the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) creates. The NCBE writes the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) questions. Many of these NCBE-released questions appeared on past exams. They are different than questions that a course makes up as they reflect the style and level of difficulty of the questions you can expect to see on the bar exam.”
In addition, Themis’ explanations of the MBE questions were subpar to the explanations provided in Emanuel Strategies & Tactics, and Themis’ data analytics were subpar to those provided by AdaptiBar (as described below).
Emanuel Strategies & Tactics is widely considered the MBE bible. Brian writes:
“It’s great (and may be the only MBE supplement you need) because it comes with 600 or so representative MBE questions that are all genuine and were previously administered (with the exception of author-written Civ Pro questions) . . . Each subject is prefaced with a discussion of the tricky areas and how to deal with them. Some subjects have an overview of the major topics. There will be tips that revolve around multiple choice in general. The 200-question practice test at the back can be done to gauge your progress sometime in the final month leading to the bar.
How to use: Read the primer for each subject, answer every question on a separate sheet, and analyze their explanation in their entirety, including (A) through (D) for each question, including questions you get correctly.
So essentially, go through the book cover to cover (which is what I did). It’s worth it. Hey, I never said you wouldn’t have to put in the work.”
I agree with the above and think Emanuel is a must-have resource for MBE questions, especially if you are on a budget and want fantastic, comprehensive explanations for why each answer choice is correct or incorrect.
I started with Emanuel and paid special attention to the explanations, which were extremely helpful in getting me familiar with real MBE questions. Then, I moved on to AdaptiBar, which includes “1,964 Questions (1,749 Licensed Questions, plus 215 Simulated Questions. NCBE OPE 1, 2, 3 & 4 included).” Note that what were previously known as “OPEs” are no longer available for separate purchase as of March 25, 2019. They’ve been replaced with a different set of study aids that have a mobile online component.
Despite the fact that AdaptiBar’s explanations weren’t as detailed or thorough as Emanuel, the explanations were still better than Themis’ explanations. Ultimately, AdaptiBar was still a worthwhile investment, especially considering the prices that NCBE charges for fewer questions on its store. Brian sums it up nicely:
“In any case, AdaptiBar includes the entire universe of real questions that were tested in actual exams. PLUS questions from NCBE’s Study Aid newly released in 2017 (including 30 actual Civ Pro questions).
Specifically, 1,530 of them make up every licensed question that was previously available through the NCBE. There are 200 Civ Pro and 15 Real Property questions that AdaptiBar’s legal team wrote. There are 210 additional questions most recently released in the 2017 Study Aid, along with answer explanations written by the AdaptiBar legal team. These Study Aid questions can be taken in 100-question formats in random (but proportional to what you’d see on the real MBE).”
For me, the key benefit of Adaptibar was its data analytics and automatic adjustment of the presentation of questions based on your previous performance:
“Turns out AdaptiBar adapts to your performance. Explains the name.
In other words, over time, it gives you more questions of the types that you suck at, and it gives you fewer questions of the types you don’t need more help with. It learns and caters to you so that you can get better practice—automatically.
This means the AdaptiBar software will help you target and shore up your weaknesses, without you having to figure them out yourself!”
(Note: I’ve heard great things about the Critical Pass Flashcards, but I didn’t get my hands on them until late in the bar prep game and didn’t end up using them very much. Some food for thought!)
Putting it all together
Whew, that was a lot of information. Give me the bullet points!
- The California Bar Exam consists of five one-hour essay questions, one 90-minute Performance Test, and 200 multiple-choice questions (the MBE).
- You can deviate from (or even completely abandon, as I did) the study plan prepared by your big box bar prep company.
- For a crash course course overview, I watched the Themis video lectures at 1.5x or 1.75x speed without taking notes. Had I not signed up for Themis, I would have checked out Barbri’s Conviser Mini Review (CMR) book.
- To create my personalized outline for each subject, I used Magicsheets and Approsheets. I continued to refine and update these outlines as I practiced.
- To practice essays, I used BarEssays.com and my personalized outlines. To practice MBE questions, I used Emanuel Strategies & Tactics and AdaptiBar. If budget is a huge concern, I’d cut AdaptiBar first.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not claiming that my approach is the one and only way to pass the California Bar Exam. Rather, I hope that you can take the aspects that work for you and study in a way that works for you. Trust yourself — you didn’t get this far without getting to know yourself and your study style at least a little bit!
And in no particular order, a few parting thoughts and gentle words of advice:
- Exercise to the extent possible. I lifted weights and/or ran every morning, which did wonders for my mental, emotional, and physical health during bar prep. Along the same vein, try to take care of your body and eat as healthy as you can!
- Schedule in breaks every so often. I studied all day for 6 days per week and rested on Saturdays, but I know others prefer to study fewer hours each day for 7 days per week. Do whatever works for you!
- Rely on your support system, whether that’s your family, significant other, religious community, therapist, etc. You don’t have to go about it alone!
- Study hard and study like it’s your one and only shot, but also know that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t pass this time around. Be kind to yourself!