Where are all the law school grads?

Garrett Brown completes online practice tests in the Charleston School of Law’s library for his bar exam that is scheduled for late July.

Casey Toth

After three years of grueling study and taking on piles of student-loan debt, recent law school graduate Garrett Brown can’t take a breather.

While many graduates from other academic disciplines might be spending time rejuvenating at the beach, Brown, 25, and most of his counterparts across the country are cramming for the bar exam, which in South Carolina runs July 29-31.

Preparing for the exam is like a full-time job, said Brown, who graduated from Charleston School of Law in May. And almost all recent graduates that he knows are taking an intensive bar-review course from Barbri, a company that offers bar-exam preparation courses in all 50 states.

The test-preparation course isn’t cheap. Law students, who have been battered in recent years by the crushing student-loan debt and dramatically declining job prospects, must come up with or borrow another $2,500 to $3,000 for the course.

Brown, who is from Goose Creek, graduated with about $180,000 in student-loan debt, and is job hunting now. In order to practice in South Carolina, he must pass the state bar exam. While it’s tough for most students to come up with the money to pay for the review course, he said, most of them see it simply as a fact of law-school life.

The review course is essential, he said. The test covers a great deal of material, and he wasn’t exposed to all of it in law school.

John Warren, a graduate of the Elon University School of Law, said he also is taking the Barbri course. “From the first day of law school, they are soliciting you,” he said of Barbri representatives. “It’s something we begrudgingly know we are going to have to do from Day 1.”

Warren, who is from Lexington and has about $80,000 in student loan debt, has landed a job as a clerk for an S.C. Supreme Court justice.

While several law school graduates and representatives from the state’s law schools said the Barbri course provides solid preparation for the bar exam, the company’s business strategies have recently come under legal scrutiny. Last month, Barbri reached a $9.5 million class-action lawsuit settlement over allegations that it attempted to monopolize the market for bar-exam courses.

Plaintiffs in the case alleged that Barbri agreed not to compete in the LSAT business and that Kaplan, another test-preparation company, agreed not to compete in the bar review business. The LSAT is a test students must take for admission to law school.

Barbri company president Mike Sims said the allegations in that lawsuit dated back to 1997, when the company was under different ownership.

And, he said, the Barbri program provides an effective review program for South Carolina’s bar exam and those in other states.

It wouldn’t be so popular if it wasn’t effective, he said. The legal community is small and vocal, he said. “If Barbri didn’t work, students would know it.”

Brock Collins, director of bar preparation at the Charleston School of Law, said bar-exam review courses are necessary because law schools don’t teach students to take the exam. “We train them for the practice of law, not the exam itself.”

Law schools teach students to think like lawyers, he said. And they allow students to pursue their own legal interests in the second and third year, so all students don’t take the same courses.

A bar-review course, such as those offered by Barbri or Kaplan, gives students “a method of review,” he said.

Kaplan began offering a bar-review program in South Carolina this year, he said, but most students take the Barbri course.

Collins said the additional money students must pay for the review course isn’t much of a concern for him.

“Law school is expensive, so ultimately what’s another two to three grand?” he said. “I might sound a bit jaded, but this is America and it is what it is.”

Alex Ruskell, director of bar preparation at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said people preparing for the bar exam should treat it like a full-time job.

And test-preparation courses help them pass the exam the first time they take it, he said. That’s important, because many test-takers lose their confidence if they don’t pass the first time, and that makes the process even more pressure-filled.

And the test is really tough, he said, and test-takers must be absolutely certain of their answers to questions. “If you kind of, sort of know it, you will pick the wrong answer,” he said, because the most common wrong answers will be among the options on the multiple-choice portion of the exam.

Jillian Manna, another Charleston School of Law graduate, said she also is taking the Barbri course. So far, she doesn’t think any of the material expected to be on the exam is new, but she knows she needs to thoroughly understand it and recall it under the test’s time constraints.

Preparing for the bar exam is expensive, she said. Students must pay not only for the review course, but applying to take the exam and paying for the required fingerprints and other expenses cost nearly another $1,000.

Even so, she said, the bar-review course is worth it. “I spent a lot of money on law school and applying to take the bar exam, so I want to do everything I can to prepare for the bar the first time so I don’t have to retake it.”