6 Skills to Pass Bar Exam Essays

by Dustin on

Bar Exam Essays are worth the most points and are the most important part of your bar exam prep. You have been doing law essays throughout your law school career, and they are going to be the biggest focus of your bar exam.

That being said, there are several skills to develop in order to succeed in passing these essays:

1) Issue Spotting

Each issue on the bar exam is worth a designated amount of points, from 5 points to even as high as 40points! If you don’t see the issue, you’ll get zero points, bottom line. If you see the issue and can throw some mumble jumble together, you’ll at least get partial points, merely for spotting the issue!

To pass the bar exam, you only need to spot and do well on the major issues. If you can pick up the minor issues as well, you’re setting yourself up for a Super Bowl Victory (even during this NFL lockout)!  Click here for issue spotting tips.

2) Outlining/Organization

Outlining is all about Organization. One of the most overlooked and important areas of the bar exam is having an organized, easy-to-read answer, complete with underlined headings and nice, clean-cut paragraphs. You might think this is a ridiculous thing for bar exam graders to give/deduct points for.

However, remember they are testing to see if you are lawyer-ready. Lawyers must be organized and clear in their writing. A grader will spend 3 to 5 minutes grading your exam. They are only looking to make sure you got the right issues, and often scan your answer for key words and facts. Make it easy on them with a nice, organized answer so they don’t get confused, are happy, and give you a passing grade.  Click here for Outlining tips.

3) Rule Memorization

Rule memorization is obviously important for your bar exam. It’s always nice to know exactly what rule applies, remember it, write it, and apply it.

A mistake is to place too much emphasis on the importance of rule memorization. It’s about how you apply the rules. Even if you use the wrong rule on the exam, but have the right analysis, you get partial credit! On my bar exam, I used the name of a duty in Business Associations when doing a Professional Responsibility analysis (I think it was duty of loyalty).  Wrong name, hopefully the right rule, but a passing answer, nonetheless!

4) Lawyerly Writing

This is a very important technique to be good at. I had friends who went to ABA-approved schools, took barbri, knew all the rules, issue spotted well; however, plain and simply, their writing did not look like that of a lawyer.

It’s the one thing that bar exam prep programs don’t really emphasize or help you get better at. They will mostly assume you learned how to write properly in law school.

However, never fear. You can either get an individual tutor or even better, try this. Get a list of sample exam answers (preferably the ones barbri provides, not the model answers on the calbar website), and literally retype the answers they have. Do this a couple times and you will see a shift in your mindset and the way you formulate words and sentences. This technique helped me greatly in my bar exam prep.

5) Timing

Practice your timing for the bar exam. It’s quite shocking how many people merely focus on outlining or issue spotting exams rather than going through and doing a full-one hour exam under timed conditions.

Practice how you play. In the bar exam room, you will not be only outlining or issue spotting, you will be taking three essays in a three hour time period. Time budgeting is extremely important. Running out of time should not be an excuse you accept for yourself. You will have spent two months preparing. Make sure you are able to finish an exam in a one hour time period.

When bar exam day comes, who knows what emotional state you’ll be in. Practicing builds the foundational blocks that can’t be disrupted by anything when you walk into that door bar exam day.

6) Make up Rules on the Go

It’s a frightening idea to think you might open an essay and see issues or facts and have no idea what rule or area of law applies. Well, guess what? It will happen to you!

California is notorious for throwing at least one (or two, maybe three) essays that seem to just make your head turn. Our bar exam had an entire essay on government takings: partial and full takings. Of course, I remembered looking at takings one time early on during my bar prep.

So, the only thing I could do was make up the entire essay. This was especially hard because the facts were so limited. I basically made up rules I thought would be fair, wrote them confidently, and analyzed based on those rules – PASS!

So if you’re taking practice tests and you see something you don’t know, don’t just run to the Conviser mini-review (or to your fridge for a chocolate snack release). It’s a perfect opportunity to practice what’s going to happen on the bar exam. See what you think the issue is, make up a rule, and analyze based on your rule.

When you check the answer, you’ll often see that you were actually in the ball park of the right answer. You’ll probably get at least part of the rule and use most of the facts – which of course, is darn near passing. And that’s not bad for having no idea what the heck you were reading. See, all that freaking out isn’t really necessary, is it now?

“This name appears on the pass list”

Good luck on you bar exam prep!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Lauren Firestein June 17, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Great tips! I agree that it’s extremely important to practice tests under timed test-like conditions and practice not knowing the rule. Not only do you get your writing strategy down cold, you also get to practice handling any thoughts and feelings that come up.

When I took California the bar, I had a bizarre trusts question and had to made up the rules. Then I ran out of time on the performance exam. I made the first sentence of every paragraph on the performance exam make sense, but the rest was garbage. And I passed!

Test anxiety and blanking can only hurt you on test day if you are not practiced at handling it. The more you practice what you will do if you blank, panic, run out of time, or don’t know the rule, the better you will handle anything that comes up on test day.

My blog post on blanking may also be helpful – What if I Blank on the Bar Exam? http://mindoverbar.com/blog/what-if-i-blank-on-the-bar-exam/

Good luck!

Lauren Firestein
Mind Over Bar


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