It’s not unusual for Dan Shemer’s phone to ring when he and his wife, Kathleen, are out to dinner with friends. “I have to take this,” he says. “It’s a really smart but really insecure student. She’s convinced she’s going to fail the bar; I need to talk her down.”
The Shemer Bar Review (SBR) founder says that when students call in a panic, it’s hardly ever about content.
“‘If only I knew the subject better,’ they say. That’s not the problem,” Shemer says.
He helps them figure out the real problem, often test-taking skills or test anxiety. “So when they say, ‘What if this happens?’ we try to talk them down, telling them that that’s highly unlikely and that if it does happen, they can handle it. It’s about helping them focus and not let their anxiety get in the way of that focus.”
SBR’s intensive eight-week course concentrates on three areas to help law school graduates prepare for the Maryland Bar Exam: it reviews important content areas that the exam will cover; it offers one-on-one critiques of students’ writing, an important part of the exam; and it provides strategies for test-taking and stress management, including breathing and meditation techniques. “Helping them feel confident that they can handle that anxiety is really important to us,” Shemer says.
After graduating from what is now Frostburg State University in psychology, Shemer got his law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1980. During the 20 years he worked for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, he moonlighted as a teacher for a local bar review company and started his own business helping students with their legal analysis and writing skills.
In 1999, he launched his own bar review company. Initially, he gave about 40 percent of the lectures and did most of the writing critiques himself but quickly hired a group of instructors – veteran lawyers and law professors.
UB Law professor Michael I. Meyerson has worked with Shemer from the beginning. “We’d both worked for other bar review companies,” he says, “and Dan had this vision that things could be done differently: It’s not enough to just stand up front and lecture. You have to work with individual students and their individual learning styles to make sure they succeed. You have to get your hands dirty.”
Most of SBR’s current faculty have been with him from the start. Some give lectures, some coach small writing groups, and some do both. In 2002, he hired Neal Kempler to manage some of the logistics and find ways to grow and improve the business. Shemer’s wife, Kathleen, also an attorney, manages the company’s finances. The business still operates out of the front bedroom of their Lutherville house.
In addition to his SBR work, Shemer continues to be a part-time instructor in the UB Law School, where for the past 25 years he’s taught litigation-related courses.
Since SBR began, some things have changed. The course’s annual enrollment has increased from about 100 to over 300. And SBR now live-streams each night’s lecture to students who are taking the course fully online or who can’t get to that class. A second faculty member now sits at a computer, fielding questions in real time from the streaming students. Shemer holds a weekly online Q&A session. And students still meet with a faculty mentor once a week in groups of four for writing critiques.
What hasn’t changed is the attention to students. During the week between the end of the course and the bar exam, each student gets a phone call from his/her small group instructor and in many cases from Kempler or Shemer. They’re calling partly to answer any last-minute questions the students might have about the law or about the exam, but mainly to give them a pep talk, remind them that they’re ready, that they have what it takes.
Shemer can’t go to the grocery store or the farmers market or a fancy restaurant without someone coming up to him, introducing himself as a former student, and getting one of Shemer’s trademark bear hugs.
“I always feel bad when I don’t remember their name,” he says even though it might have been 15 years since he saw the person. “Being recognized and being called by name are really important to people, and I’m always trying to do that.”
The company faces two challenges in the near future. One is that Maryland is adopting the Uniform Bar Exam, a national exam that is no longer Maryland-specific and that will allow people to practice law in any of about 30 participating states.
That means that people wanting to practice in Maryland no longer will need to take the exam in which SBR specializes, making the company just one more of the many bar review prep courses across the nation. The other change is the decline nationally in law school enrollment, which means a decline in the pool of bar exam candidates.
Shemer shrugs. “There’s nothing we can do about either of those,” he says, “except do our job even better and hope that our personal, whole student approach attracts more students.”
The course base/retail cost is $2,995, but there are discounts for early registration, military, various financial need discounts, etc. Students who fail the bar exam may retake the course for free (as many times as they need to), but there’s no refund.
For information, visit shemerbar.com.
Jon Shorr is a freelance writer based in Mount Washington.