In Search of a Bar Prep Plan for Working People

Mountain of Bar Prep Books

Last time, I mentioned that hope was not a plan for bar exam success. That, and the arrival of my Barbri books last Friday meant it was time to figure out my California Bar Exam (CBX) study plan.

Say No to Blindly Following a Prep Program

I used Barbri to prep for the New York Bar Exam.  While I passed on my first attempt, Barbri fell short of my expectations in two areas – the MBE and the interactive paced program.  MBE question quality was a particularly sore point.  The questions were convoluted at times and did not reflect the ones that I encountered on the actual exam.  A brief skim through the pages of my new Barbri books confirmed that the question quality hadn’t improved enough for me to give it another go. Moreover, I did not want to practice on questions I likely had already seen. So, using Barbri’s MBE question sets was out. 

Second, I found the paced program frustrating.  You switch back and forth between an overwhelming medley of lectures, online material, and books.  Whomever completes the panic-inducing study plan deserves a medal, is a machine, or both.  This go around, I wasn’t up for feeling like a failure everyday because I couldn’t complete an unrealistic study plan.  I needed a study plan for a human being, one that was employed full-time. 

Know Yourself and Your Study Habits

My NY bar prep experience taught me that you must (1) stick to how you study best, (2) know your strengths and weaknesses, and (3) be realistic about your study hours.  My “know yourself” recap is below.



Study Plan Impact


I’m working, with time off for the holidays and for 2 weeks off to allocate for exam.

  • Do the heavy lifting on weekends, with about 2-4 hours of study time allocated each weekday.
  • Re-purpose old outlines where possible.


Study Method

I’m a visual learner. I also like simplicity, and prefer to ramp up studying as the exam date approaches.

  • Rely heavily on outlines and flashcards. 
  • Stick to core prep tools.
  • Start with a light load (about 20 hours week), taking 2 weeks off immediately before the exam to drill.


Multiple Choice – I love these exams. Even when taken by surprise on the MBE, I did better than average (147.5 vs. a 143.8 mean). 1  February exam scores tend to be lower than those in July, which only helps me. 2

Open Book Essay Exams – Having all the info on hand keeps my anxiety in check and allows me to focus on essay organization and clarity.

  • Begin with MBE materials, and focus on learning the California distinctions.
  • Get familiar with the CBX Performance Test structure and answer format(s) early on.


Closed Book Essay Exams – They take me back to law school, and not in a good way. My perfectionism works against me. I tend to spend too much time issue spotting and not enough time writing.

  • Use timed practice for all essays to establish a time allocation routine. 
  • Complete lectures early to build confidence in the material and allow ample time for review.


Understand the Test

In addition to knowing yourself, you should also understand the test’s structure and the relative weighting of the components.  According to a UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law 3See[/ref]  handout, the relative weights for the CBX are:

Written (65%)

MBE (35%)

Closed Book (39%)

Open Book/Closed Universe (26%)

Multiple Choice (35%)

6 Essays

2 Performance Tests

190 Scored Questions

Taking the above chart a step further further, each essay accounts for 6.5% of your overall score, and each performance test accounts for 13%. 

The good news: 61% of my score would be derived from test questions that play to my strengths.

The bad news: I was still going to have to learn the other 39% given the brutal CBX pass rate.

We’re Rolling on Study Plan – Take 1

Taking into account the test and my quirks, I developed a study plan. Have a peek at it below.

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My study plan:

Strips bar prep down to its basics. I stick to core video lectures, outlines and flashcards, and high quality or released practice questions. That’s it. I don’t have time to drown in bar prep books or online content.  My specific materials and resources are listed below. 

  • For Lectures: Barbri (Core lectures only. No preview lectures, or other sidebar.)
  • For Outlines: Barbri (Based on the lectures, with references to the Barbri Conviser mini-review for tricky issues.)
  • For Flashcards: Quizlett (I’ll likely grab a set someone has created.)
  • For Practice Questions:
    • MBE: Kaplan PMBR
    • CA Essay: Barbri and Released CBX Exams
    • CA Performance Test: Barbri and Released CBX Exams

No Barbri AMP, Study Smart MBE, etc. 

Is content sensitive.  I start with subjects that are fair game for both the MBE and the essays (i.e., crossover subjects).  It seems that CA professional responsibility is tested every year, so I tackle that fairly early as well. I allocates equal time to all crossover subjects. For essay-only topics, I allocate more time to the areas of law I’m not familiar with or don’t encounter on a regular basis in my practice (e.g., civil procedure, community property or remedies).

Puts content first, then delves into practice questions. The schedule emphasizes getting the videos and outlines done early. I don’t see much point in completing tons of questions until I’m more confident with the content. To that end, I keep practice questions/essays light until around February 1. After that, I review outlines/flashcards and drill until test day. 

Carves out time for performance. I set aside time for the performance tests as they account for 26% of the exam.  NY has a similar option, the MPT, but I wanted time to review the question format and sample answers, and practice my time allocation.

Economizes and includes days off.  My time constraints require efficiency, and most Barbri videos move at a pace akin to watching paint dry. So, as I did for New York, I plan to create my outlines while listening to the videos at 1.25x or 1.5x the normal playback speed. Also, I know there are going to be days I don’t want wake up at 5AM or stay up late to study. So, my schedule fits in days off as a reward, or if I let things slip during the week, a catchup day. 

Prizes reality and flexibility.  Though my schedule offers daily study suggestions, I judge my progress on a weekly basis. If I have to shuffle things around in a given week to meet a work deadline or personal commitment, I refuse to beat myself up about it.  If I am mastering material ahead of schedule, I will happily move on to the next subject. Look for an update on how successful I was in adhering to the schedule next week.

What do you think of my study plan? Am I too cavalier and headed for bar prep “no pass” land? Did I give too much (or too little) weight to a subject? Let me know in the comments.


  1. See , pg. 33.
  2. Id.
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Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.


  1. Chiya P. Lloyd

    May 29, 2013

    Hi Melinda, was this your study plan for the New York Bar Exam as well?

    • Melinda Hightower

      May 30, 2013

      It wasn’t. I actually did more more of the Barbri study plan. I plan to load my New York bar materials in the next few days so be on the lookout for that post. -Melinda