I’m on the cusp of taking the California Bar Exam. It’s natural, at this point, to be anxious, and pretty much everyone facing the exam feels like they don’t know enough. It’s considered one of the most difficult legal exams in the country — if not the most difficult. The exam is a three-day marathon of essays and multiple choice questions covering a wide array of subjects, some of which require knowledge of the difference between Federal and California law.
I did well in law school and am no stranger to having to memorize large quantities of information, but I’m bearish on my prospects for success on the first attempt at landing this exam. Perhaps I’m just cynical — I often predicted dismal results on my law school exams only to find myself sheepishly telling the friends who’d put up with my whining that I’d wound up doing a lot better than I’d predicted. And a good deal of my cynicism comes from not feeling like I’d done my best in preparing.
And a lot of my skepticism is because BARBRI sucks.
My BARBRI books arrived a few weeks before graduation — an intimidating stack of books with foreign acronyms on the spines, casting an ominous pall over the joy of graduating. Perhaps three of these books turned out to be remotely useful.
Some of my contempt for BARBRI is personal: some of my colleagues had been told that all students at my law school were “guaranteed” a spot, but I wound up stuck at a law school some 20 miles away. Not that it mattered: it was just a room for BARBRI to play DVDs of the same videos you could watch online from the comfort of home, and perhaps 15 of the original 100-150 attendees bothered attending after the first week. But it would have been helpful to have some structure by being able to go to my own (nearby) law school every morning. So I called and emailed, only to be ignored.
Some of my contempt is practically gospel among BARBRI attendees. BARBRI provides an online system to manage daily studying tasks, and with it comes a progress bar tracking how far you are in the program — and how far you should be. Most people seem to fall behind almost immediately, and the green arrow demonstating where you should be only adds unnecessary anxiety.
The quality of the lectures themselves vary. Some are very helpful — Chemerinsky’s is notable both for its clarity and the fact that he does it without notes, and Epstein’s contracts lectures are helpful in clarifying the (for once) consistent outlines. Many of the lecturers also provide comforting reassurance (backed by humorous anecdotes) that, no matter our anxiety, we’ll be able to demonstrate ‘minimum competence’ and pass. Some lectures are aggravating: professors simply reading outlines word-for-word (I can read, too, thanks) or rattling off rules with little or no orientation as to what the hell they mean. And don’t get me started about BARBRI’s apparent devotion to making sure that none of its students be able to download or speed up videos to save time.
What is most aggravating about BARBRI is that among all of the lectures and three different outlines per topic, there’s little material to actually study. Each of the three outlines (the larger outline, the somewhat-condensed Conviser Mini Review, and the lecture notes) seems inconsistent with the others, in either order or the actual rules — and none is short and to-the-point enough to simply memorize, which is the most difficult part of preparing for the exam. I can only surmise that the inconsistency between the materials is the result of a division between the people preparing the outlines and the people preparing the lectures.
This annoyance is shared by many BARBRI students. We’ve paid thousands of dollars for the program, only to discover that, unless we can read 50+ page outlines per topic and come away with having memorized that information, we have to assemble our own short outlines and flash cards. That’s a waste of valuable time and severely adds to the anxiety of preparing the exam. These materials should be provided as a matter of course for a comprehensive bar review program. Sure, you can find some of these types of materials online — but you’re still going to have to figure out why they have seemingly-contradictory information than is provided by the BARBRI materials.
So, thanks, BARBRI — I’ve assembled my own study materials just in time to begin studying for the February exam. I’d ask for a refund if I thought you might return my calls or emails.