Friday, May 4, 2012

Review of Barbri, PMBR (Kaplan), & Emanuel Bar Exam Material for Self-Studying Purposes

I want to provide a brief review of bar exam study materials that, for many of you, will be (or are already) at your disposal. If you're enrolled in Barbri or PMBR (Kaplan), then you're all too familiar with the shipments of books they sent you. Maybe 50+ pounds' worth total; it's just absurd. Some of these materials are helpful; others aren't.
I'll start with a rundown of MBE material from Barbri, PMBR and Emanuel (from worst to best). Then I'll look at Barbri's state-specific material for Virginia. I trust that my comments on the Virginia state-specific material will be helpful to any taker from any state who's looking to purchase Barbri books for his state bar exam.

MBE Materials

BARBRI (Overall Grade: C)
In a word, Barbri's weakest link is its MBE material, especially its practice questions. Of the many MBE options out there, Barbri would be one of the last on my list.

1. Multistate (MS) Book. I never touched it. It's far, far more detailed than what you'll need to successfully pass the MBE. You have enough information to digest already. Don't make it harder on yourself by knowing every single nuance imaginable.

2. Conviser Mini Review (CMR). This one's better, and can be helpful if you're struggling with a specific issue and want more light shed on it. But I caution you to use this book sparingly. If you find yourself becoming too attached to this book, or are constantly referring to it, or are trying to memorize every page of it, STOP NOW. The CMR is a blessing in that it will answer almost any MBE question you have. It's also a curse if you get too obsessed with it. You'll never know everything in the CMR, so don't try to, unless you want to give yourself a nervous breakdown two weeks before the exam.
3. Multistate Practice Questions (MBE Preview, MPQ1, MPQ2, and MSE (Simulated MBE)). Again, I really didn't care for Barbri's practice questions because they're nothing like the questions you will see on the actual MBE. This isn't just my opinion; almost all of my classmates concurred. There's nothing worse than putting all of your trust into Barbri, and then walking out of the actual MBE thinking, "WTF, Barbri?" Barbri's instructors will repeatedly tell you in their lecture videos that Barbri's practice questions are harder than the actual MBE. That's BS. Don't buy into it. The actual MBE questions are worded very differently than Barbri's questions, and so, because the actual questions will seem foreign to you, they'll seem a lot harder. That's not the kind of anxiety you want when you're staring 200 questions in the face. Don't get me wrong: Barbri's practice questions are better than no practice questions. But you have other, better options out there. Use them.

PMBR (KAPLAN) (Overall Grade: B+)
In a word, they're very good. While PMBR questions are getting a bit old, the concepts on which they test you aren't. There's only so many tricky ways the NCBE can test you on spousal immunity privilege or intentional infliction of emotional distress. PMBR covers all of the tricks, so you don't get caught on the actual MBE. PMBR's questions are tough, on par with the actual MBE's difficulty, but don't let that discourage you. Put the effort in, work at them, and you will reap the benefits.

1. Multistate Workbook, Vol. 1 (Red Book). The outlines are unnecessarily long, but good. There's over 1,000 questions too. Some questions are harder than others. Some ask you on very obscure property law that, most likely, will not be on the actual MBE. Some questions are also a half-page long, which is equally unrealistic. Take the bad questions with the good. Because PMBR questions are hard, you'll want to use the Red Book to gauge how well you know the fine-line law and exceptions, because understanding them cold will make or break you on the actual MBE. Think of PMBR as your tool to partly build your skills, but more so to sharpen them. If you're taking Barbri's course, buy a used Red Book on Ebay or Amazon or Craigslist, and substitute Barbri's practice questions for PMBR's and Emanuel's (see below).

2. Multistate Workbook, Vol. 11 (Blue Book). Not necessary. Plus, the Blue Book questions are generally longer and more obscure, which makes them more unrealistic when compared to the actual MBE. Use the Red Book instead; it's better.

3. Multistate CD Review. About 30 CDs total (30 hours or so of material). All of the lectures are great, except Contracts. Skip that one. I uploaded them onto my iphone and played them whenever I could - driving to and from work, making dinner, riding a train, flying, working out at the gym, waiting around, etc. Listen to them as often as you can until the concepts discussed become second-nature. I went through each subject about three times. Great preparation, and also a great break from reading or taking practice questions. No need to take notes (unless you really want to). Just listen.

In a word, the very best MBE resource out there! (Seriously.) Use Emanuel's S&T as your base of practice questions; in other words, supplement S&T questions to build up your MBE knowledge and test-taking skills. Emanuel's questions are actual, previous MBE questions, and are still representative of what you will see on the actual MBE. Take advantage of that!

1. Strategies and Tactics for the MBE, Vol. 1 (red-accented cover). This book is gold. Forget Barbri and PMBR outlines. Start here. Each subject starts with a mini-outline, which covers important concepts and very helpful tips and tricks for the actual exam. The outlines won't discuss every possible issue for each subject because you don't need to know everything. Instead, they discuss the most frequently-tested issues as well as issues that the NCBE commonly traps or tricks students on. In others words, S&T filters out less-important issues and focuses solely on the knowledge and skills. Additionally, the practice questions for each subject, and the two simulated practice exams in the back of the book are excellent. Very close in terms of style and language to what you will see on the actual MBE. Note too that the questions will be somewhat easier compared to PMBR's questions. Do both. You need the experience. The actual MBE is 1/4 easy questions, 1/2 mixed questions, and 1/4 impossible questions. Use S&T to build your knowledge and skills, then supplement it with PMBR's Red Book and PMBR's CDs to sharpen both of them.

2. Strategies and Tactics for the MBE, Vol. 2 (blue-accented cover). Volume 2 is 300 more practice questions, split evenly between each subject. Get this volume too. An answer and explanation follows each question, meaning you can't really rifle through a bunch of questions at once. Don't worry. Use this book to really learn the law and get more comfortable with actual MBE questions. Use PMBR to time and pace yourself.

Virginia State-Specific Materials

BARBRI (Overall Grade: B+. Some materials, A)
In a word, Barbri does a pretty good job capturing the overwhelming amount of law that the Virginia Bar Exam covers. But Barbri being Barbri, they'll of course give you far more material than you'll need. Some books are gold, while others aren't so much.

1. Virginia (VA) Book. Like its MBE counterpart, don't touch it. It's far, far more detailed than what you'll need to successfully pass the written portion of the Virginia Bar Exam. If you want to learn intricacies of Virginia law after the bar exam, then this is your book. But it's useless for the bar exam.

2. Conviser Mini Review (CMR). See my comments above for Barbri's MBE CMR. They generally apply verbatim here. This book can be very helpful if you're struggling with a specific issue and want more light shed on it. But don't rely on it obsessively, and don't make it your primary source. Think of it as you would a dictionary. When you don't know the meaning of a word, you look up that word and that word only. Not the five pages before or after. Likewise, when you're struggling with a particular area of Virginia law, use similar restraint.

3. Virginia Essay Taking. Pure gold. This should be your primary source for learning Virginia law. Every essay question was a previous, actual Virginia Bar Exam essay. Read it cover to cover at least once. Don't get carried away with Barbri's insistence on drafting an outline answer after each question. It's more important to read as many practice answers than it is to outline your own. In the book, you will also find the short answer section. That's great too. Go through it several times and know it cold. I loved this book.

4. Virginia Lecture Handouts. The handouts are keyed to the Barbri lectures in a fill-in-the-blank-type style. The lectures for Virginia Civil Procedure, Federal Jurisdiction, Equity, Local Government, and a few of the smaller subjects are extremely well-prepared. Go through them several times and pay particular attention to where the Barbri lecturer says, "This was just tested" or "this is frequently tested." Overall, the lecture handouts for Virginia-specific subjects are pretty good. In contrast, the Multistate lecture handouts are generally a waste of your time, except for Contracts & Sales. Lastly, for those of you who are buying Barbri books second-hand, the Lecture Handout book is usually not included. Try to get your hands on the filled-in lecture handouts anyway.

5. Supplements Handouts / VA Distinction Handouts. Technically, the VA Distinctions section is located in the CMR, about 20 or so pages, but it's scattered with blank or missing sections. Barbri will likely hand out clean copies of VA Distinctions at your video lectures and also post them online. Read them carefully a week or two before the exam. They're very good - and very helpful for the actual exam. Know Evidence's distinctions particularly well, because Virginia likes to ask short answer questions concerning Evidence. Most other supplemental handouts that Barbri hands out, like recent Supreme Court rulings or statutory updates, are useless. The Virginia Board of Bar Examiners typically will not test on new law until a couple years after it has become law. They need to see how courts interpret the law before they can reasonably test examinees on it.


  1. How old is too old regarding the Kaplan PMBR Red Book? I am seeing many 2006, 2007, and 2008 versions for sale, but I was not sure if these were too outdated. Also, would you recommend waiting for the newest version of Emanuel's Strategies & Tactics Volume 2 to come out in late December, or is the 2009 version likely identical to whatever is released this year?

    1. They're not outdated. 2007 is a good year. The question formats are not representative of the kind you will see on today's MBE (that's what Emanuel's is for), but old PMBR (i.e., pre-Kaplan) will measure how well you know the common MBE tricks and fine-line distinctions.

      The newest Emanuel's edition (of Vol. 1) has a fresher set of questions, but the strategies and tactics have not changed. I am recommending that my students invest in the new edition for the newer questions, but the 2009 edition is nonetheless a very good alternative. Same rationale applies to Vol. II.

    2. Is a 2005 version of the pmbr mbe question books too old for the 2013 MBE?

    3. I haven't reviewed the 2005 version but, yes, I suspect it's probably too old.

  2. I completely disagree with that Kaplan's MBE questions are harder than the actual MBE questions. I generally scored an overall average of about 80% on the Kaplan MBE questions in the practice tests and scored a 107/200 on the actual bar exam. This is just one person's experience but, nonetheless, it is contrary to this blog.

  3. Could you review Themis Bar Prep Course? Please.

    1. I'd be curious to hear thoughts on Themis as well.

  4. I think most of what you've said on this post is accurate, with one exception. After using Barbri for Virginia in 2013, I was disappointed with the sample answers provided for practice essays. The Barbri essays were actual previous exam questions, which is great. But some rules were incorrectly stated in the sample answers. I realized this when I compared the 'model answers' written by local law professors to Barbri's sample answers and found that the law professors' differed from Barbri's sample answers on a few questions. This isn't to say people shouldn't use Barbri, but just a caution not to over-rely on any one source of answers. I otherwise completely agree with your assessment of the courses here though.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Josh. Keep in mind that there's often more than one correct answer for Virginia essays. While outright mistakes are always possible, it's not uncommon for Barbri and law professors to answer essays differently but both be correct.

  5. It is certainly true that essays can have multiple correct answers. But there are also more definite rules and errors. One error I caught was a major bar review course answer that applied comparative negligence analysis to a Virginia state-law negligence practice essay. The law professors, and I'm sure many sharp students, had correctly identified the pure contrib rule in VA. So there is certainly room for variation on answers, but that was an example where the review course was wrong. With all the rules out there, no course will be perfect, and most students do well anyway. I suspect the students often catch these types of errors without any problem.

    On another note, you've got a great blog going here with a lot of outstanding information.