When you're fresh out of law school and saddled with student loan debt, money can be tight; especially when you're not working.
For most, opting to pay for a commercial bar review course is a no-brainer. They've paid their deposit on the course since their 1L year.
However, if you've decided to forego paying thousands of dollars to a commercial bar review company, there are some things you can do to study smart for little or no money.
Fortunately, there is one inexpensive way to prepare for bar exam essays. Chances are, your state bar's website publishes past essays and model answers. There are enormous benefits to reviewing these materials.
If you are taking the California bar exam, past essays and performance tests can be found here. The Florida bar has an extensive collection of past essays dating to July 2003 that can be found here. Texas questions and answers can be found here.
The usefulness of past essays and performance tests is obvious - you can see exactly what a jurisdiction tested on a prior exam. In many cases, you will see patterns develop as to what topics are touched upon in essays. For example, if you encounter a past California community property essay, there is a good chance (although not a certainty) that you will have to discuss Van Camp and Pereira. There was actually a California community property essay a few years back where a spouse started a business during the marriage so Van Camp and Pereira did not apply (see February 2003 Essay #6).
Likewise, past Florida essays focused on topics that reoccur rather frequently on exams. For example, a Florida Constitutional Law essay might beg you to discuss the Homestead property exemption. Once you read enough of these essays, you begin to see patterns form in terms of what material is tested.
However, the usefulness of model answers from past essays is less clear. In California, the model essays might be intimidating. Some of them are rather long and you might ask yourself as you read them, "How did anyone find the time to type all of this?" Contrast this with Florida's model answers where you can find numerous misstatements of black letter law. So how should the average person preparing for the bar exam use these model answers?
For the California bar exam, model answers can serve as motivational tools for how to write a passing essay. Beyond their length, you will see that the answers selected to be printed are rather complete in their discussion of the essay subject. Where there is an ambiguity, multiple outcomes are discussed. In a jurisdiction such as California where bar graders value analysis in essay answers, you can benefit from reading two examples per essay of what good analysis looks like.
California model answers can also help you improve your issue spotting skills. It is very helpful to read past essay questions, then write or type out your answers to them before reviewing the model answers. Afterwards, you can see if you missed discussing Lucas and Anti-Lucas on a particular community property essay or a purchase money resulting trust on a trusts essay. Passing performance on the California bar exam's essays involves discussing a myriad of topics in a given subject and if you miss one or two of these in your answer, you could be looking at failure. Therefore, use the model essay answers to hone your issue spotting when it matters.
Florida model answers are great for issue spotting. The benefit to reading many model essay answers in preparation for the Florida bar exam is that you can really refine your issue spotting capabilities. I still remember spending hours with a group of friends going over all of the past Florida essays to practice spotting issues. The Florida model answers can also be of value for their analysis but you have to be aware that the Florida bar does not edit these essays so some of them contain typos and incorrect statements of law.
I truly believe that there is immense value in taking the time to review past essays on bar exams. American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at length about the necessity to grasp the past as a guide to the future. If you can develop an understanding of what your state's bar exam has tested, then you will be better prepared for your own experience in July. And besides, it costs nothing but your time to gain this insight.