From the day law school starts, you are inundated with offers from commercial bar prep programs for lower rates, free highlighters, or candy, in return for signing up to use their program. Many of my classmates locked in these specials within the first semester of school and had their payments broken into portions that were then added to their school tuition bill. Half-way through second year, one company had joined forces with my law school to offer their prep program as part of the tuition fee – everyone got it automatically, but you could opt out.
I can honestly say, I felt extremely pressured to commit to a particular bar prep program early on. So, I did what I always do and waited until the last second. I chose a program during the last semester of my third year, and only chose them because they were nearly a thousand dollars cheaper, boasted a 90% passing rate if you completed 75% of the course work, and claimed to allow you to study from anywhere with just your laptop.
I don’t regret my decision to study with a commercial bar prep program the first time around – I’m not into regrets – but I do wish I had known more about other options and not felt so pressured to conform – especially because my learning style does not gel well with the commercial bar prep plan.
Full disclosure: I signed up for a Bar Exam Toolbox tutor four days after starting my first bar prep, and I used my tutor as a psychiatrist instead of as a teacher. I got a lot out of the experience, but I got a whole lot more out of it the second time around because I actually asked questions and took her constructive criticism.
You Have a Different Learning Style
I’ve said this before, and I will probably say it 100 more times, everyone learns differently. There may be similarities in how we learn, but learning should be individualized. Commercial bar prep programs are made for the masses and believing you will only pass if you follow their instructions is ridiculous. I wish I had figured this out the first time – the mere fact that there are a dozen different bar prep companies with different study tools proves that people learn differently.
Choosing a tutor allows you to take more control over your learning experience. At Bar Exam Toolbox, I worked very closely with my tutor. We had weekly calls and she answered every single meandering email where I was trying to ask a question about a specific area of law but wasn’t quite sure why I was confused. She also encouraged me to learn what my particular learning style was early on and commit to it. I am not a passive learner. I have to be actively participating or I retain nothing. For me, active participation looked like memorizing while walking on a treadmill, or teaching myself the substantive law and checking in with my tutor to ensure I was on track.
You Want a More Personal Experience
Tutors will encourage you to own your bar prep. They’ll encourage you to come up with your own schedule and check in to see if you’re sticking with it.
This might not work for some people. A lot of people I knew liked the fact that with their commercial bar program they just showed up in the morning and followed the schedule it lined out. I was not that person. I enjoyed looking at the schedule I was given and tweaking it to fit my life. I did it week by week and day by day so I wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed.
Further, your tutor will be there to answer questions as you go along. With the commercial bar prep program, I was told I’d have someone grade three to five essays over the course of the summer and these grades would match up with how the bar examiners would grade. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it definitely didn’t feel like it. I consistently got 4-5/6 points on my essays, and very little criticism, only to turn the same essay over to my tutor and have it come back with tons of edits.
You’ve Already Tried Commercial Bar Prep Programs and Have the Substantive Law Books
Part of the appeal of working with a commercial bar prep program is that they provide long outlines on the substantive law topics (I mean, you pay for them, but we’ll pretend it’s a perk). If you’ve already tried a commercial program, and your substantive law books are still current, you can use them with your tutor. The truth is, most programs include all the same things – they just say it in different ways. The benefit to using a tutor is that now you can take a basic program and revamp it, so it works for you specifically. (And if you don’t have the books you can easily find them on eBay.)
Working with a tutor provided me with a much more personal experience. My bar prep was tailored to me, instead of to the masses. I was given encouragement by a real person, in real time, not just by a five-year-old recording on a computer, and I was taught to pivot when life got in the way or I accidentally burned out with six weeks to go. I think commercial bar prep programs work great for some people, but for the rest of us, it’s important to take an active role in your bar prep – and that includes weeding through prep programs and tutoring companies to find the one you think you’d work best with. For myself, it was Bar Exam Toolbox. I used the same tutor both times, and the second time around I definitely focused more on taking her constructive criticism and doing something about. I made my bar prep my bar prep and wasn’t concerned with what everyone else was doing.
As the saying goes, “Don’t study harder, study smarter.” While I do think that most people could study a little harder and might have to, there is definitely something to be said for working within your own style, acknowledging that you have different needs, and going out and finding someone who can help you specifically.