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Bar Exam Prep - The Pros and Cons of Self-Study as Compared to a Formal Bar Review

Although most bar candidates take a formal bar exam course when initiating bar exam prep, self-study is a viable option for those considering their preparation options. Since the bar exam is the last hurdle to becoming a licensed attorney, there is much to consider when deciding how best to prepare and what study options will be most effective and productive - whether to take a bar review course, whether to proceed with self-study, or whether to combine the two options for maximum benefit. There are pros and cons to each approach, so you must evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of each in order to make the best decision for yourself.

Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, there have been very few, if any, live bar exam courses available, which has raised the decision of whether to enroll in an online program or pursue the self-study option. The decision involves many factors, including the cost of a formal bar review course, one’s degree of self-discipline to put together a self-study program and stick to it, and whether one can evaluate one’s own work without supervision and feedback. Self-study does not mean “go it alone” because self-study can be combined with selected bar review tools that include written substantive law materials, and bar exam practice tests that are available as an adjunct to self-study.

When considering the importance of bar exam prep, and deciding whether to prepare for the bar exam alone or with a formal bar exam course, it is important to carefully assess the pros and cons of every study option to ensure that you make the correct choice to enhance your potential to pass the bar exam.  

Self-Study For Bar Exam Prep

Pros: The main pro of self-study is eliminating costs. Formal bar exam courses can cost thousands of dollars, which is a financial burden for many bar candidates who have already shelled out considerable funds to pay for their law school programs. Self-study eliminates that immediate cost and the financial strain related to it. 

Further, many bar candidates who are disciplined want the flexibility to tailor their own bar exam prep around their personal needs and schedules without the constraints of a schedule set up by a formal bar review course. For those who do not need external motivators to prepare for the bar exam, self-study is an effective way to prepare.

Cons: The primary con to self-study is that it requires a lot of self-discipline and the ability to set up an effective study program that will target the body of law and the exam skills necessary to fully address every aspect of the bar exam. 

For bar candidates preparing to take the exam, much time has elapsed since taking first, second, and third-year bar exam subjects, so the first challenge in bar exam prep is to refresh and relearn the substantive law in every bar exam tested subject. This takes time and discipline. It is difficult to identify and correct deficiencies in one’s own knowledge of the law in a self-study program. However, there are many resources available to learn the substantive law. With discipline and adequate time devoted to study, this con can be overcome.

However, the main con of self-study is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for most bar candidates to assess their own test-taking skills. Self-study bar exam candidates must be able to evaluate the quality of their own exam skills and assess their own work. Such self-analysis demands a full understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses in test-taking, and the ability to self-correct, which is not easy to do. 

Nonetheless, for those bar candidates who can create an effective study program that promotes their ability to fully grasp the substantive law, include in their bar exam prep schedule a full complement of bar exam practice tests, and exercise self-discipline to stay on track with their self created program, self-study can promote success on the bar exam.

Taking a Formal Bar Exam Review

Pros: Bar exam courses take the guesswork out of the bar exam study process. They provide ease and predictability in the study process. Bar review participants receive a study schedule together with the written substantive law outlines and bar exam practice tests that are necessary to fully prepare for the bar exam. 

Bar exam courses are created by bar exam professionals who know what it takes to pass the bar exam. They tailor the materials and study schedule to maximize the study of the law and the development of exam skills in an organized and structured program. 

The pro for taking a formal bar exam course is that bar candidates are not just given instruction in the law - they are given bar exam practice tests that prepare them to take each part of the bar exam, something that is not taught in many law school classes. The substantive law is provided so bar candidates can refresh and relearn the law using efficient approaches that may not have been presented in a law school class. 

Once bar review courses cover the substantive law in a particular area, most bar review courses transition to exam-taking skills, using actual bar exam practice tests to prepare the bar candidate for the essay, MBE, and Performance exams. 

The use of actual bar exam practice tests combined with the test-taking skills instruction is what makes most bar reviews so valuable. Bar review courses like Fleming’s have their bar candidates take dozens of written bar exam tests under simulated bar exam conditions. The students then submit their written answers to the Fleming’s staff of attorney readers who provide the students with personal oral feedback for every answer submitted. In this way, Fleming’s bar candidates know where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and they have the opportunity to make any needed corrections before taking the bar exam. This results in a much better-prepared bar candidate.

The fact is that most bar candidates have a good grasp of the law by the time they take the bar exam, but their main area of deficiency is with exam test-taking skills. Bar review courses provide instruction on how to take the different sections of the bar exam by using actual bar exam practice tests, which is not something that is typically done in law school. 

Bar review courses like those from Fleming’s Fundamentals of Law include Essay and Performance exam-taking exercises for personal feedback from attorney readers. This provides the link between learning the law and applying it in an exam-driven environment and is a service that self-study rarely addresses. It is a crucial bridge in the bar exam prep process that brings the law and test-taking together. It is one of the most valuable pros a bar review can provide because it is very difficult for law students to assess their own test-taking skills without personal feedback.  

It is also a pro to receive step-by-step instruction on the method to take Essay and Performance exams, as this is typically an area of weakness for many bar candidates.

Cons: The big con for bar exam courses is the cost - they can be pricy for law students.  Further, with live bar review courses, they are scheduled on particular days and at particular times. A bar candidate does not have the flexibility desired with such a structured program. 

However, this con can be eliminated with online bar review courses, like those offered by Fleming’s Fundamentals of Law. Online bar reviews can be typically accessed 24/7.  

The Hybrid Option - Combining Self-Study With A Formal Bar Exam Review

After considering the challenges of bar exam prep, and the pros and cons of self-study compared to a formal bar exam course, many bar candidates may want to combine features of both. For instance, many bar candidates can learn the law on their own and do not need a formal bar review for that. Some may only want assistance with specific areas of the law. Others may only want bar exam practice tests together with instruction on their exam skills. Thus, for those bar candidates who want to reduce the cost of a formal bar review course and retain the flexibility of self-study, there are avenues available for this type of hybrid study program so bar candidates purchase exactly what they need to supplement their bar exam studies.

For instance, Fleming’s has many “a la carte” programs and services available. Bar candidates can take an essay writing program, or an MBE course, or a Performance workshop. For bar candidates who only need to hone their essay writing skills, Fleming’s Writing Workshop is a great resource. A pro is that it provides 12 hours of video instruction. Another pro is that it provides multiple bar exam practice tests combined with the opportunity to submit three essay exams for feedback from Fleming’s attorney readers.  Another pro is that it is cost-effective.  

Fleming’s also has a four-day course to prepare for the Performance exam including four timed bar exam practice Performance tests with feedback provided by their attorney readers.  A pro is that Bar candidates receive four days of instruction on an area that is not well covered in law school.  Another pro is the bar candidate is given four practice Performance exams to take under timed conditions and submit for attorney reader feedback - because it is important to master the timing when taking a Performance exam to learn to balance time between reading the material and drafting the response. The price is also a pro because it is reasonable for the instruction provided. There are no cons to this tremendous resource. 

Fleming’s also has personal attorney tutors who will tailor a study program to address the particular needs of its bar candidates. These attorney tutors can provide personal instruction on any aspect of the bar exam from the substance law to exam skills in Essay, MBE, and/or Performance testing. 

Bar candidates can work with Fleming’s tutors in the particular areas desired. The pro to a private tutor is having that personal one-on-one interaction, which allows for a conversation about issues, which affords better clarity regarding the required corrections.  

The hybrid option reduces the costs associated with a full-service bar review, targets particular concerns the bar candidate may have, individualizes instruction, and maintains the flexibility of self-study by eliminating the need to be tied to a formal bar review schedule. Thus, the pros of the self-study and bar review options are maximized and the cons of the self-study and bar review options are minimized.

Bottom Line: Weigh The Pros And Cons Of Each Option To Make The Right Study Choice

Weighing the pros and cons of the variety of bar exam prep options described above will allow bar candidates to make the right study choice for themselves as they prepare to take the July 2021 bar exam.  

It is important to note that the July 2021 CA bar exam will be administered online. As of February 2022, the CA bar exam will resume live administration absent unforeseen conditions. Nonetheless, as the pandemic restrictions ease, and there are more in-person bar exam courses available, Bar candidates must still assess the pros and cons of self-study as compared to formal bar review courses or hybrid options in order to choose the best approach to bar exam preparation.

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