Bar prep course on your iPhone?

It used to be that law students first got to know about the bar exam when bar prep representatives accosted them in the hallways to sign up for a bar review course. In exchange for signing up early, students received bar prep course materials, such as outlines, flowcharts, and flashcards, to use during law school. When students finally graduated, they paid the remainder of their bar prep course balances, usually totaling several thousand dollars.

For those with big firm job offers, their firms footed the bills, but for students who went into public interest or did not have jobs waiting for them, the costs for bar prep courses added to their debts.
But, technology is now changing the way people study for the bar exam, and has opened doors for new bar prep companies. I recently interviewed Mehran Ebadolahi, co-founder & CEO of TestMax, which produces BarMax and LSATMax.

Ebadolahi graduated from Harvard Law School in 2010. He had scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT and I has over 6 years experience teaching standardized test prep courses. His co-founder, Mike Ghaffary, is currently the Director of Business Development at Yelp! He also attended Harvard Law School. The third partner is Sina Mobasser, creator of Pop Quiz!, an early top-10 iPhone app.

Q:  What prompted the founders to start a bar prep course?

Mehran Ebadolahi:  Many of my friends in law school were committed to becoming so-called “public interest” lawyers – that is, they did not intend to go on to law firm jobs.  Instead, they wanted to serve underrepresented communities, as poverty lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, civil rights lawyers, and immigrants’ rights lawyers.  Many of them were competing for a handful of fellowships that would pay between $38,000 and $50,000 a year, before taxes, after graduating from a Top 5 law school.  For them, the cost of bar exam prep would be 1/10th of their post-grad salary.
This did not sit well with me. Bar exam prep should not be limited to those few law students who have the benefit of a corporate law firm footing the bill. Not only have we priced our product at less than $1,000 to make it much more affordable for students, we also created the BarMax public interest scholarship to encourage work in public interest.

Q:  Explain technically how the software/program works?  What kind of equipment does a person need to buy?

Mehran Ebadolahi:   BarMax is a comprehensive bar exam review course. It is not a supplement. You have audio lectures, outlines, essay workshops, real practice questions, model answers and personalized feedback. We have basically taken all the elements of a traditional in-class course and put it in the palm of your hand.

As for equipment, at this time a student needs to use an iOS device (iPhone/iPod touch/iPad). However, we are currently developing BarMax for other platforms, such as Windows, Android and the web.
We recently embedded our MPRE course online so that all students, not just those with an iOS device, can access this free course.   We also have bundles available with BarMax + iPad 2 (soon to be iPad 3) for device-less students. 

Q:  Is it a subscription model?  Does a law student sign up during the first year, and then get yearly updates and subscribe all the way until the student takes the bar exam?

Mehran Ebadolahi: No. BarMax is a one-time payment.  BarMax comes with lifetime access and support until you pass the bar exam so there’s no need to worry about signing up early. Once a student purchases the course, he or she will have access to all subsequent updates of our app free of charge.

Q:  What's the toughest feedback you have received, and how did you learn from it?

Mehran Ebadolahi:  The toughest feedback we received was that people thought we were crazy when we first released BarMax CA for iPhone. How could someone be expected to study for the CA bar exam on an iPhone? This was obviously a legitimate concern and in response we created our Welcome Packet that includes our course materials in PDF format so that students can study on their laptops as well.

Some other feedback we received early-on was that while it was great we were cheaper, what mattered most to law students was that BarMax worked. As such, we spent the first two years establishing our track record and credibility. In 2011, BarMax CA had an overall pass rate of 71% (the CA state average was 51.6%) and BarMax NY had an overall pass rate of 81% (the NY state average was 63.7%).

Q:  Who are your customers? How are they different from those who go with other bar prep courses?  Are the students repeat takers, from top schools, or non-ABA?

Mehran Ebadolahi:  Before we established our track record of success, most of our students were repeat takers who had tried to pass the bar exam with the "leading" bar exam prep courses, failed and simply could not afford to pay $3,000-$4,000 again. Today, however, we have all types of students using BarMax, including students taking the exam for the first time, repeaters, and students from ABA and non-ABA approved schools.

Our students have helped grow our business by passing the bar exam using BarMax. While it is great that BarMax is 1/4 of the price of the leading bar exam prep courses, I have always said that even if BarMax was free, students would not necessarily use it. The key to our success was establishing that BarMax works and we are incredibly grateful to our students for believing our vision that bar exam prep could be better.

For example, one of our students, Sheila Monjazeb, failed the CA bar exam 3 times using the leading bar exam prep courses. I heard about Sheila through a mutual friend and I offered to let her use BarMax for free because I was so confident in our methodology and technology. To prepare for the February 2011 CA bar exam, Sheila only used BarMax CA for iPad and she passed! The pass rate for that exam was only 39%.

Q:  What are the industry trends?

Mehran Ebadolahi:  Prices for bar exam review courses are finally decreasing. For example, a competitor who initially entered the bar prep review market a couple of years ago at a $3,500 price point recently dropped the price of its course to $1,595.
Another competitor, only 3 weeks after we launched, stopped charging students to repeat the course and for online access to the course materials. This is obviously great news for law students everywhere.

Q:  What advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting a business today?

Mehran Ebadolahi:  We are witnessing a democratization of entrepreneurship. New technologies are leveling the playing field so that companies like BarMax can be launched without massive capital investments and compete head-to-head with multi-million dollar public companies. That said, my advice would be to follow your passion and focus on providing real value to your customers.  Listen to your customers’ feedback.  Work hard to create a product that prioritizes their needs.  Partner with the best and the brightest in your field.  Above all, try to harness technology to ensure that everyone can access the quality products they need to succeed in their chosen careers.