When I went to law school (I graduated from Harvard in 1994), no one ever mentioned the bar exam. In fact, I don’t remember a single one of my professors discussing what subjects from their course were likely to be covered on the bar exam, for example. That is not to say that what they were teaching us was not useful preparation for the bar exam or that the courses didn’t cover some of the material that we needed to know for the bar exam, because it was and they did. My professors taught us how to think critically, how to approach problems from different perspectives, how to apply law to facts. Along the way, we learned quite a bit of substantive law as well. I had Arthur Miller for Civil Procedure, a year-long course. He taught exclusively using the Socratic method. There were no handouts, and certainly no PowerPoint slides (was PowerPoint even invented back then?), but he was the best teacher I ever had. He inspired us, partially through fear and intimidation, partially through a desire to please and impress him, and partially by setting an example of meticulous preparation and consummate professionalism, to study harder than we ever had before. And I learned a lot of civil procedure.
In my third year of law school, I signed up for the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bar examinations, which were offered back to back, and enrolled in BarBri, which my father, then Dean at Widener Law School, assured me was far and away the best bar prep course available. I followed the BarBri program and I easily passed both bar exams. I felt at the time that I probably could have just skipped the last two years of law school and passed the bar just by taking BarBri, because the subject matter review was so comprehensive, and because I had mastered the basic form of the law school exam essay by the end of the first year. I do not mean to imply that the last two years of law school were a waste of my time. Quite the contrary, I look back on those years as one of the most fulfilling and exciting times of my life, and I learned a lot. My point is that I took hardly any courses that were bar-tested in my second and third years, so the bar review was mostly a review of my first year courses.
When I started teaching law in 2005 at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton California after a decade of practicing law, I quickly realized that for students who are not naturally gifted standardized exam takers and essay writers, the standard bar review course at the end of law school was, in many cases, not enough to help them achieve a passing score on the bar. This was especially true in California, where the exam was longer (3 days), more difficult (with a higher cut line) and tested more topics than the bars I had taken.
One potential method to help prepare students for the bar exam was to provide an in-house bar review/bar prep program to be taken prior to graduation, before the student started the traditional bar review course. For a long time, the ABA Standards did not permit students to earn credit towards graduation for such a bar exam prep course. This rule was modified in 2004-5 to permit students to earn credit for an in house bar exam prep course, but the credit couldn’t count toward the minimum classroom instruction time required by Standard 304, and law schools were not permitted to required a bar exam prep course as a condition of graduation. As a result of these rules, in house bar prep programs in 2005-2007 largely consisted of sparsely attended voluntary evening and weekend workshops. In the summer of 2008, ABA Standard 302 was revised (by eliminating Interpretation 302-7) to permit bar preparation courses to be offered for credit, to allow such credit to count towards the minimum requirements for graduation, and to permit law schools to require such courses to be a required part of the curriculum for some or all students.