Imagine that it’s the morning before your dreaded civil procedure final. Ninety percent of your peers are already in the library studying. The other 10 percent are somewhere breathing into a paper bag. But you? You’re at home with your headphones on, lying on a lightly carpeted concrete floor, and your hip is starting to go numb. You’re assembling a bunk bed for your kids. No, you haven’t given up on law school. In fact, you’re on your way to graduating summa cum laude from BYU Law School (one of the most competitive law schools in the country).
Fast forward a couple of years. You have an hour break after a grueling morning of MBE questions. The bar exam isn’t over yet. You still have three hours of multiple-choice questions to go. You pop in your earbuds, grab your baseball bat and a bucket of balls out of your car, and walk to a nearby high school field. Between swings, you take a bite of lunch. No, you’re not about to fail. You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to score in the top 5 percent nationally on the Uniform Bar Exam.
Those unusual hypotheticals describe two real moments in the almost unbelievable story of 33-year-old Adam Balinski, the millennial who launched Crushendo, only a year after taking the bar exam himself.
Prior to law school, Balinski worked as a TV reporter for a CBS affiliate and then as a corporate trainer and instructional designer for Epic, a behemoth medical software company. Both careers proved critical in his preparation to found a revolutionary education company that specializes in audio outlines, audio flashcards, storytelling, and mnemonics.
It’s not an exaggeration to say no one has done law school quite like Balinski. While serving as a Law Review senior editor, he simultaneously served as editor-in-chief of the Education and Law Journal at BYU Law. During law school, he welcomed his third child. He served as a religious leader of a local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beginning with his 1L summer job, Balinski worked straight through graduation and the bar exam to support his young and growing family. He interned with a few law firms, was a legal writing teaching assistant, worked in-house at Melaleuca and Pluralsight, and even taught Swedish at the university — yes, he had all of those jobs at some point during law school. Vad fantastiskt!
Now, you’re probably wondering, how the heck did he manage all of that without become an absentee husband and father? Along with saying a mountain of prayers, he credits an innovative study group and custom-crafted audio outlines.
Balinski has blogged at length about how he creatively and efficiently leveraged his study group. So, this article will focus on how he used audio.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Balinski. In true Adam-fashion, he was doing two things at once. While I interviewed him, he was on his way to pick up an order of new Crushendo shirts. Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our lively conversation about bar review and how he built a successful company from the ground up.
Staci Zaretsky (SZ): Describe your journey. What made you decide to start this company?
Adam Balinski (AB): One way you can look at it is that it started more than a decade ago when I was studying as an undergrad. Even then, I would record my notes. I was listening to them between classes as I was getting ready for finals.
Those basic audio outlines helped immensely, so there was no way I wasn’t going to use a similar strategy during law school.
As it turns out, I quickly found that I couldn’t do law school the conventional way and be wildly happy. I thoroughly enjoyed class and had fun with my classmates, but then came the solitary preparation time — which is the bulk of law school. I couldn’t sit there almost all day, every day, with my head in my books or my eyes glued to the computer — that would have been a shriveling experience.
I wanted to use my time as wisely as possible and work smarter, so I recorded my notes and listened to them while exercising, cleaning, commuting — you name it. I felt like most outlines were too long and didn’t lend themselves well to memorization. So, I would condense my own outlines and trim away all of the fat. I found that a distilled, hour-long audio outline for each subject was just about right.
When it came time to study for the bar exam, I used a similar method. One day, I had a buddy come up to me and say, “Hey, I heard you made your own audio outlines for bar prep. Can I buy those from you? I’ll give you $50 for each subject. I just want to golf today and not feel guilty.” That’s when I realized there could be a real market for this sort of thing.
SZ: What has been most fulfilling about starting an education company?
AB: Seeing Crushendo help students and grads with a wide variety of backgrounds and challenges, especially those with disabilities, like blindness and dyslexia.
SZ: What do you think differentiates Crushendo from the rest of the competition?
AB: Mnemonics, memory palaces, brevity, affordability, illustrations, access length, and of course, our audio outlines and audio flashcards. There are so many more things you can do with audio learning instead of constantly having your nose in a book. You can have fun and learn what you need to know, all at the same time. You can play basketball, you can go for a run, you can go for a hike, you can go to the beach — and you can prep for the bar exam at the same time.
I wanted to create a commercial product that was so memorable, engaging, and efficient that it would be better memorization-wise than the valuable-but-labor-intensive process of creating your own outlines. My goal is to have this be the very best bar prep product, period, no questions asked, and the most affordable, which is a crazy goal.
Sometimes people ask, because they’re concerned about the cost of Crushendo, why is it so cheap? If it’s so affordable, it can’t be that good, right? They think to themselves, “I want to get the best for myself, so I’ll drop $3,000 on BARBRI because I don’t want to roll the dice when it comes to this big exam.” But like I said, I’m passionate about efficiency, so if there’s a cheaper or more affordable way for us to do something as a company, we’re going do it — and we’re going to pass savings on to our users.
SZ: Why do you think people will benefit from doing bar prep in this way if they’re not used to learning in this way? For example, say someone is a very visual learner. What would they gain from listening to audio lectures?
AB: Everything that we have in audio form, we have in written form as well, along with cool illustrations. So, regardless of whether you’re into the audio approach, we have something for you. I do think that people who haven’t traditionally used audio should at least give it a try because the payoff can be so great.
There are some people who are going to be more excited about our product than others. For example, podcast listeners are going to be stoked and it’s not going to be a steep learning curve for them. But we recognize we’re asking most people to study differently than how they have in the past. To change study techniques at the finish line — before the most important exam of their life — can be intimidating, terrifying, and maybe even paralyzing. To ease the anxiety of trying something new, we have a 30-day, money-back satisfaction guarantee. In fact, if you want to experiment with Crushendo without paying a dollar, you can reach out and we’ll give you access to one of our outlines for free.
SZ: How far off do you think Crushendo is from being the very best bar prep company?
AB: It’s audacious to say, but I believe that we’re already there. That said, we haven’t convinced the entire world yet. Most of the legal community hasn’t even heard of Crushendo. So, we have plenty of work to do. And even if we think our stuff is the best, we want to make it even better. We’re constantly striving to outperform ourselves.
You can see evidence of that effort in Crushendo’s recent video update:
True to form, the video shows Crushendo’s CEO standing on a ballfield, just like old times.
On behalf of everyone here at Above the Law, we’d like to congratulate Adam Balinski on creating the innovative bar review program that is Crushendo. If your goal is crushing the bar exam, then this may be the bar prep program for you.
(Disclosure: Crushendo is an Above the Law advertiser.)