Bar Exam: How to Study for the MBEs

Hello February Bar Exam Takers!

I want to thank everyone who follows this blog. I started this blog in 2007 and today we have thousands of followers and over 1.2 million views. I am grateful and humbled by the following.

In the holiday spirit, and all year round, it is a joy to me to be able to help people through the bar exam. I especially enjoy being able to pass along free tips and advice, this was my intention in 2007 when I started the Bar Exam Guru Blog.

I don’t know about you, but this picture gives me a little bit of anxiety, even after passing two MBE exams!

This is Part One in a series of posts that I will be writing on how to most effectively prepare for the February 2020 bar exam. Part two will address the written portion of the bar exam and part three will address How to Create a Realistic Study Plan. So stay tuned.

What I am sharing with you is something that I have only shared with my enrolled students. I am choosing to share it with you all now because this test is just so hard and seemingly impossible to so many. But, in truth, if you do certain things and get started quickly, you can easily even the playing field and rise above it and PASS!

However, what really prompted me to write this post today was an email I received from one of my students this morning. As part of our program, I require each student to provide me with a daily progress report. I believe in accountability. Plus it keeps me in the loop with each of my students on a daily basis and allows me to intervene quickly if I think they are going astray.

In this student’s progress report she shared with me that for the first time she scored over 70% on the Torts MBEs. She said that when she took Barbri, she never scored above 50%. I have every confidence that she will pass the February 2020 bar exam. It has taken me many years to develop our program and I have made updates constantly. Fifteen years ago, I was more inclined to let students use multiple resources for the MBEs. But, it became clear that the method below is what works for everyone. It worked for me in 1994 and it has worked for literally thousands of students since.

So this is my holiday gift to you! 

It is the third week of December. If you are taking the February 2020 bar exam, you need to get going as soon as possible. This is especially true if you are a repeat taker who has to juggle full time employment and studying for the bar exam. Where should you start your studies? Begin practicing MBEs as soon as you can!

First, focus on quality more than quantity. Second, do not feel you need to do a substantive review prior to working on the MBEs. If you follow my advice on how to approach the MBEs, your practice of the MBEs will be a substantive review, and even better, it will be in the context of the actual exam. Of course you will review the topics. But, do this after you begin working on the MBEs.

To prepare for the MBEs be sure to work exclusively on National Conference of Bar Examiner’s (NCBE) MBE questions.

There are three main sources for NCBE MBEs: 1) the NCBE website, (the NCBE even provides FREE questions, who doesn’t want that?),  2) The Strategies and Tactics Book, 7th edition, published by Wolters Kluwer and most recently updated by Steven L. Emanuel, ISBN: 1543805728 and 3) Adaptibar. I recommend that you stay away from all other resources (more on this later).

I have no financial interest in any of these resources, nor do I receive any kind of kickback for any recommendations I am about to make.

I have personally utilized all of the materials above and have worked with thousands of students who have used these materials (as well as other MBE books and programs that I do not mention here) since 1994 (Adaptibar was first available in 2007).

Over the past two decades, it has become clear to me, and to my students, that there is one resource that beats out any other, for dramatically improving your MBE scores quickly. This resource is the Strategies and Tactics book listed above. The Sixth edition of this book is great, but now there is a 7th edition that only just became available a few days ago. If you have the 6th edition already, is it worth investing in the 7th edition? My answer is yes. Why? Because the 7th edition includes 30 Civil Procedure MBEs that were recently released by the NCBE. Can you get these same MBEs elsewhere? Yes, but you won’t get the brilliance of Steven L. Emanuel’s explanations.

In 2007 I was one of the first beta testers of (at the time) a new to the market, online MBE program called Adaptibar. I began using it with my students in addition to utilizing the Strategies and Tactics book. While I loved the diagnostic aspect that Adaptibar provided, I felt that the explanations were a bit to be desired. Still, for many years, I worked with students who supplemented with Adaptibar.

Since I am a statistics freak – over the past few decades I have kept track of our pass rates  (of course) but, I have also paid special attention to my students MBE scores in their practice. I found that anyone who was scoring over 80% on the Strategies and Tactics book had passed the bar (and this was true when the MBEs were only 35% of examinee’s score)!

I also found that when students supplemented with other resources for the MBEs that it took them much longer to achieve over 80% on the Strategies and Tactics MBEs, and sometimes they never achieved that score. Keeping track of my students’ successes and what specifically lead to each student’s success was, and is, extremely important to me. Yes, I am in a business for profit. But, the key to my success is the success of my students. Plus, I LOVE helping my students pass the bar exam. I am absolutely passionate about it!

So how does one achieve 80% or higher on the released NCBE MBEs? Practice and repetition and careful review of the explanations in the Strategies and Tactics Book as well as careful review of each introduction in the book. I instruct all of my students to work through the Strategies and Tactics book three times. You might think that sounds crazy, but it works and it works like a charm. Here is how you do it:

  1. Read, very carefully, the introduction to the MBE in the Strategies and Tactics book (hereinafter: S&T book). All of the intro sections take a lot of time to go through, It will feel tedious. But, once you do go through it, you will know why this resource is so excellent and so worth your time.
  2. Read the Torts intro in the S&T book.
  3. Complete the Torts MBEs in the S&T book ONE AT A Time, checking your answer for each MBE as you go. The reason for doing this is that you want to make the correction immediately, while the fact pattern is fresh. Also, do not write in your book, or at least do not make it obvious which answer you chose because you will be re-doing these same MBEs two more times. On the next pass through the book you will do sets of 20 or 30 at a time and compare your stats with your first pass through. This is very important because you want to know how much progress you are making.
  4. Make flash cards for missed MBEs. When making flash cards for missed MBEs focus on the reason why you missed the MBE. This is so critical. You will often find that it was not that you didn’t know the rule but, that you did not know the proper context for the rule. For example, you need to know what the NCBE says is a “taking by force” such that a robbery has occurred. It doesn’t matter what I think is factually a taking by force or what Barbri or any other bar prep course thinks is factually a taking by force. It ONLY matters what the writers of the MBE questions (the NCBE) decide is factually a taking by force. So, cut to the chase by only working with the NCBE MBEs. And, my recommendation is to utilize the S&T book exclusively. More on why later.
  5. Move onto Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and Contracts next. Go through the same steps above (carefully read the introductions and complete each MBE one at a time, reviewing the explanations for each MBE before moving on to the next). By utilizing this approach you will make the quickest improvement you can make and in the shortest time. You do not have time to waste at all.
  6. Next, go on to the remaining topics, it doesn’t matter which order you take now, these remaining topics are all very difficult. It is best to begin with Torts, Criminal Law&Procedure and Contracts because these topics are less challenging and it will give you an opportunity to focus on the new strategies and techniques you are learning.

After you have completed each section, move onto completing the first 50 MBEs in mixed set that is in the back of the book. Expect your scores to drop because you are now handling all topics, not just one at a time.

Next, make a second pass through each set of MBEs that you have already completed and then complete the second fifty MBEs in the mixed set in the back of the S&T book. If you have carefully reviewed the introductory sections on your first pass through the book, you should not need to review these again. But, of course if you feel you need to re-review some of it, go ahead.

After your second pass through the book, repeat all of the MBEs a third time, followed by completing the last 100 mixed MBEs in the back of the S&T Book.

By now you should be getting at least 85% and many of my students get 95% to 100% correct on their third pass through. I never see these students again for bar review.

Why should you work exclusively with the S&T book?

While Adaptibar does utilize NCBE questions, I have found that examinees (both first time takers and repeat takers) are most successful when they work exclusively in the Strategies and Tactics book. As a result, I no longer recommend Adaptibar as a primary resource for the MBEs. I still have students who come to me with access to Adaptibar, but I warn them that anything that takes them out of the S&T book simply delays their improvement. You need to improve quickly. Do not dilute your prep with other resources that are simply not as effective. If a student of mine wants to incorporate Adaptibar into their prep, I recommend that they do so only after completing three passes through the S&T book. Make the improvement that you need in the quickest way possible and then, and only then, it is okay to do some practice online.

Most of my students do not use anything other than the S&T book. This is true for my first time takers. Another point about Adaptibar – I do love their diagnostics, but I have a real problem with how they rank you – against a “national average.” This might be okay if you were taking another state’s bar exam. But, California requires the highest score on the MBEs than any other state. And let’s face it, 69% is a D. And it definitely is not enough to pass the California bar exam, especially now that it makes up 50% of your total score. Many students get a false sense of security when they see that they are achieving the “national average” or doing better than the national average. This is simply not enough for California.

What about other MBE resources? The problem I have with Barbri’s MBE questions is that many of their questions are made up (this is true of all national bar prep companies). They do this to provide additional practice questions. So I think their reasoning is well intentioned. However, they do not make it clear which questions are NCBE released questions and which questions are made up. This is a very big deal. The quickest way to success on the MBE portion is to focus exclusively on the MBEs that were written by the same people who are writing the test you will be taking. To do anything else is a complete waste of time. This is not to say that I think Barbri is horrible. In fact one of the best substantive for the California bar (other than Bar None Review’s materials hehehe) is, in my opinion, the Conviser book. It is SO much better than reviewing their big outlines or to try to memorize the big outlines. Impossible. To Barbri’s credit, my students who come to me from Barbri do very well with our program. I say this because students who come from other bar prep companies require a lot more work on their end and on mine to pass. Still they can and do pass. But, I find there is often a bigger bridge to gap with some of the other courses.

I hope you find this helpful. If you do, please give me a little encouragement and make a comment here and feel free to share this post on twitter, facebook etc. And please connect with me on linked in. I post there also.

All the best in your studies!

Lisa Duncanson
Founder/Program Director
Bar None Review & Bar Exam Cram Session
phone: 213-529-0990