Learning Curve

Why We Need a Better Bar Review

Allie Robbins

Associate Professor of Law
CUNY School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2020

Citation: Allie Robbins, Why We Need a Better Bar Review, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2020)

I recently had the opportunity to speak with someone who is developing a new commercial bar review company. That conversation prompted me to ask alums via social media what they would change about their bar review courses. I received some great responses including a desire for more visual aids, outlines with time stamps so students could go back to the moment in the video lecture where a specific topic was discussed, more flexible study plans, and more condensed memorization materials.
While these were great suggestions, they seem like mere tweaks to a broken system. I have often thought that there must be a better way to do bar review. Overall, my alums asked for a more customizable bar review program that takes into account differences in both learning preferences and time available to devote to bar study. Bar review courses seem to have multiplied exponentially over the last few years with the development of new full bar programs and supplemental offerings, yet none of them focus on the ‘whole’ student or a diverse array of students: instead, they are pitched towards a single kind of student who learns primarily from outlines and has no responsibilities outside of bar review for nearly three months. None of the bar review companies seem to truly take into account the affective aspects of the bar study process. These programs do not do a great job of thinking about the diverse study body that law schools are striving to admit. What about working students? What about students with learning disabilities? What about students who learn best from visual materials such as flowcharts and diagrams?

When coaching students through bar study, a considerable amount of time is spent helping students make their bar review courses work for them. We must constantly walk the line between wanting our students to trust their bar review course and wanting them to trust themselves enough to prioritize the study techniques that work best for them. My students are brilliant, hardworking, and creative. My students also largely come from communities that are underrepresented in the legal profession. While my institution does a good job of helping our students during their three- to four- years of legal education see that they not only belong in the legal profession but that the profession needs them now more than ever, that often comes crashing down during bar study. Bar preparation brings to the forefront all their insecurities and feelings that they should not be lawyers. The confidence that comes from having achieved amazing feats and overcoming tremendous obstacles is replaced with anxiety and a sense that they will fail. They believe that they are alone in their nervousness and fear surrounding bar prep. They believe that their feelings mean they were never cut out for the legal profession in the first place. Imposter syndrome, confirmation bias, and stereotype threat combine to form a tornado of powerful, negative emotion that makes the difficult task of bar study a nearly insurmountable struggle, especially if the student performs poorly on a practice exam. Where is the bar review course that encourages these students and helps them see that they can do it?Many of my students have ADHD, cognitive disorders (such as processing deficits), generalized anxiety disorder, and other disabilities that mean that they need to learn and study differently. I work with these students to obtain accommodations on the bar exam itself, but that is only occasionally successful. Where is the bar review course that addresses their needs? Where are the alternative study plans to take into account neurological differences? Where are the bar review companies that even acknowledge that some people might take the exam under non-standard conditions?

My students send me doctrinal questions and questions about specific MBE, MPT, and essays at all hours of the day and night. While many bar review companies have increased the number of assignments on which they provide feedback, it often takes several days to receive and does not give students concrete suggestions for improvement. By the time students hear back, they have gone through so much material that they barely remember what they wrote. Where is the bar review company that provides unlimited forward-looking feedback? Where is the bar review company that provides answers to doctrinal questions in hours, not days?

Bar study is a psychological endeavor as much as it is an academic one. Students face more work than it is humanly possible to do in one day. They therefore go to bed feeling defeated nearly every night. Some students must work during bar prep to support themselves and their families. Some have children. Many serve as the primary support system and safety net for their immediate and extended families. I encourage my students early on to eliminate as many distractions and responsibilities as possible during the bar study period but for many, complete devotion to their studies is not, and has never been, an option. Why must these students constantly feel like they are at a disadvantage because they want to have dinner with their kids and put them to bed at night.

Where is the bar review company that tells them that it is ok for them to both study and take care of their responsibilities? Where is the bar review company that has a manageable schedule that allows students to feel that they are consistently making progress?

I tell my students that building in practices to support their physical and mental health are just as important as watching lectures and doing practice questions, and that they need to wind their brains down at night in order to be able to actually rest, because these are necessary to sustain them during the bar study marathon. Where is the bar review company that does more than just pay lip service to the physical and emotional well-being of their students?

None of these considerations take into account the exorbitant and prohibitive cost of bar review courses, which is itself an impediment to student success. Mass-produced online programs cost thousands of dollars. Bar review companies play games with students, offering different prices at different times and giving discounts to those who know they can negotiate. This leaves students who do not know the industry, or are not confident enough to play hardball, at a disadvantage. Where is the bar review company that has a clear and consistent price structure?
To some extent, bar review companies are not incentivized to change their programs if the bar exam itself does not change. In trying to test the law of everywhere, the bar largely tests the law of nowhere. Therefore, students are forced to rely on expensive bar review companies because they cannot find the tested law anywhere else. Students also need to turn to bar review companies for practice questions: The most recent set of MBE questions released by the National Conference of Bar Examiners do not come with answer explanations so even if students wanted to purchase questions straight from the NCBE, they would have no idea why an answer choice is wrong or right. Thus, these materials have extremely limited pedagogical value as a study tool without the answer explanations provided by bar review companies.

The clients my students will represent rarely, if ever, make an appearance on the bar exam. My students are expert at dealing with clients who have complex lives and legal issues that don’t fit squarely within one doctrinal area. They can connect their clients to necessary social services and develop creative arguments to fight for their clients’ basic rights. They can advocate on multiple levels, not only fighting in the courtroom, but organizing communities and lobbying for legislation. Yet none of that is reflected in what they are asked to do on the bar exam. A new model for attorney licensure is long overdue. But, for now, I’d settle for a new kind of bar review.

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