How to study for the bar exam

How should a person preparing for the bar exam—or for black-letter law school courses such as those taught to 1Ls—master a subject’s legal rules as efficiently as possible? After spending hundreds of hours tutoring law students and bar examinees, I’ve come up with the method below.

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Build momentum by starting with one or two MBE subjects that interest you, then gradually add additional subjects.

There is too much material on the bar exam to try to study everything at once when you first begin preparing for the exam. Instead, start by trying to raise your practice exam scores to near-passing (50% correct or higher) in one or two subjects, then gradually add additional subjects. You ultimately want to be getting at least 70% of your MBE practice questions correct.

Additionally, because MBE subjects are often also tested in essay questions, study the MBE before focusing on the essays. Try to get your MBE practice exam scores to at least 40-50% correct before adding essay prep to your study regimen.

The topics tested on the MBE (multistate bar exam) are:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Criminal Law and Procedure
  • Torts
  • Real Property
  • Contracts
  • Constitutional Law
  • Evidence.

Here is a comprehensive list of the topics covered on the exam.

Within each of these subject areas, some topics are tested more often than others on the MBE and essay exams. These include, for example:

  • Civil Procedure - Personal jurisdiction
  • Constitutional Law - Powers of Congress; Equal Protection Clause; First Amendment freedom of speech
  • Criminal Law - Homicide
  • Contracts - Contract formation rules
  • Criminal Procedure - Fourth Amendment; Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination
  • Evidence - Hearsay
  • Real Property - Types of tenancies; landlord-tenant law; chain-of-title problems
  • Torts - Negligence

You should focus your efforts primarily on highly tested areas like these before trying to master less-testable subjects (such as mortgages in Real Property or the discovery rules in Civil Procedure)—although, of course, you should eventually try to learn all of the topics on the exam.

Consider passing on the expensive bar prep programs …

Watching the outrageously priced lectures sold by commercial vendors is a mostly passive form of learning that is boring and relatively ineffective for most students. Save your money.

… But do get ahold of audio lectures so you can learn passively while doing something else.

Although I wouldn’t pay thousands of dollars for commercial bar prep lectures, I recommend obtaining audio lectures that you can learn from passively while driving, walking around, cleaning, or working out. The Sum and Substance lectures are helpful, for example. Your law library should have copies of these that you can check out.

You can also create your own audio materials by having a text-to-speech app such as Speechify read aloud outlines that you have stored as PDF or Word files.

Build outlines from scratch for every subject.

Studying commercial outlines, or (worse) outlines prepared by other students, is also a form of passive learning that is among the least helpful study methods.

The Barbri outlines are useful single-document summaries of each subject area. But trying to learn the subject primarily from such outlines may feel like banging your head against a wall. The outlines are dense, overly detailed, and cluttered with nonessential information.

Instead of relying (entirely) on commercial outlines, make your own outlines from scratch for each subject. When writing an outline, make sure the material passes through your mind rather than straight from your eyes to the paper. In other words, try to synthesize, digest, and condense the material before writing it down; don’t just copy it directly from another outline or other source.

Consider using hornbooks rather than commercial outlines.

It may feel like overkill, but reading hornbooks (relatively short treatises that summarize an area of law) can be more helpful than reading bare-bones commercial outlines. You don’t need to read hornbooks cover-to-cover, but you should consider using them to understand challenging and important doctrines.

Here are the hornbooks I recommend:

Do hundreds of practice MBE questions per subject, and make the most of every question you get wrong.

MBE questions are difficult, and there is no substitute for practicing as many as you can. You can get ahold of practice questions (and answer explanations) from apps such as Adaptibar or books such as Emanuel’s Strategies and Tactics for the MBE.

When you get a practice question wrong, you shouldn’t just shrug and move on. Instead, you should carefully read the answer explanation. Then, you should pluck any legal rules you find in the explanation and insert these into your subject outline. You might also consider writing out definitions or elements for tricky rules on 4 x 6" index cards.

Do as many practice essay questions as you can, and make the most of any points you miss.

The same suggestions listed above for the MBE also apply to essays. For each potential essay topic, you should (1) create a subject outline from scratch, and (2) do at least ten practice essays. After each practice essay, you should review your response against any model responses you have access to. (Caution: If you’re looking at a response written by another test-taker, be aware that the response probably contains some poor analysis, superfluous discussions, and incorrect statements of law.)

If you see an issue in the sample answer that you forgot to discuss, or that you discussed inadequately, you should insert that issue and its relevant rules into your subject outline.

Incidentally, whether or not you are taking the California Bar Exam, I highly recommend Mary Basick’s Essay Exam Writing for the California Bar Exam.

Consider hiring a qualified bar prep tutor to grade your essays, check your understanding, and help you design and follow a study program.

Many test takers can benefit from a tutor or academic coach who understands the bar exam. Ideally, the tutor should have legal expertise as a lawyer or law professor.


Ryan McCarl (Twitter | Facebook | Blog) is an attorney and law professor based in Los Angeles.