Bar Exam Essay Preparation

I tutored a student for the most recent California bar exam who ended up passing after studying for a grand total of about 10 days. Of course, I would have liked for him to study for longer, but he was working full time at a prestigious firm, and then there was the ski vacation he couldn’t get out of . . . Long story short, he managed to scrape everything together in just enough time.

Now, while I would never recommend studying for 10 days as an ideal scenario, people have done this and gone onto pass. Our very own Alison Monahan, one of the co-founders of the Bar Exam Toolbox basically only studied MBEs and passed in California by relying on her knowledge of the law and ability to think quickly and write assignments that “looked” passing.

So, this post isn’t so much advice about why I think you should wait until the last minute to study, it’s more of an “if you only have 10 days left, this is what you should do.” Please keep in mind, some of these suggestions may sound counter-intuitive, and if you’re sitting there with two months of study time stretching out before you, you are not the person this post is aimed at. This is for the truly last minute, flying by the seat of your pants, almost running out of time but not quite, bar takers. Let’s get started!

Don’t even think about writing your own outlines

The time for creating your own outlines has come and gone. If the exam is in less than two weeks, you simply don’t have the work hours to put into making outlines—nor should you. It would be a waste.

Good, concise outlines already exist, and the last thing you want to do at this point is waste time re-inventing the wheel. Find something short and digestible like the BarEssays or Lean Sheets subject outlines, pick only one source and just go with it.

Practice all areas of the exam, but don’t get hung up on one part

Your overall score needs to be in the passing range, so even if your MBEs are stellar, they may not be enough to carry you over the threshold if your writing is abysmal. That’s one thing most people who don’t really study for this exam have in common—they’re usually really good, very fast writers. They may not write perfect bar exam essays and PTs, but in general, their writing is polished, error-free and sounds somewhat scholarly.

In any case, hedge your bets by improving all areas: the essays, the PTs, and the MBEs. Make sure you are at least able to do timed practice without running over. Speed may be the one thing that helps you make up for what you lack in knowledge because you can have more time to stare at the facts a little longer and read the task memo one last time.

Triage and then triage some more

One of the things I worked on with this unicorn 10-day student was figuring out where to get the most benefit out of the time he was spending. And, this is something he was really great at. He didn’t sit there making flash cards all day the night before the test or anything else that would be similarly unhelpful. He didn’t just read outlines or watch video lectures.

No, what we did was figure out how many days and hours he had, and then we came up with a detailed schedule for what to do every morning and every afternoon—right down to what essays to issue spot and which subjects to review and memorize. Especially if time is not on your side, the very best thing you can do is avoid wasting any more of it than you already have.

Gamble, but be sure to get some solid advice first

This student I keep mentioning was all about playing his odds about which subjects would show up on the essays. While we are hesitant to put too much weight in predictions (you really do need to know all the subjects if possible), we gave him our best estimates.

With some careful research and what might have ended up being a tremendous stroke of good luck Lee Burgess (the other Bar Exam Toolbox founder along with Alison), was able to predict with nearly exact precision all the essay topics that this guy would see on his exams. I’m not saying predictions will work out every time, they won’t. But in this case, they did and the gamble was worth it.

Find good attack plans and memorize them (yes, memorize)

Even though you won’t be making twelve subjects worth of outlines in the last two weeks before the bar, getting some good attack plans is key. Again, though, no need to re-invent the wheel here. There are some great resources out there, like the BarEssays checklists.

The goal is that you know the answer to this question: “If X topic comes up, how do I organize it?” You should memorize the headers and sub-headers that necessarily fit within each essay topic. That way, even if you’re completely fabricating the law, your essay at least “looks” right. If you memorize one thing before the test, let it be your attack plans.

There’s a big misconception about essays passing that just look good—this can happen, but it takes more than just being competent and sounding alright, they need to actually track along with most (or at least some) of the main issues that were triggered. If the fact pattern signaled a big joinder analysis and all you talk about in your essay is personal jurisdiction, that probably won’t be enough to pass that essay. So, you need to know (a) what does joinder look like when it comes up in a fact pattern (what kinds of facts trigger this issue), and (b) what are the headers that go in a joinder analysis so even if you can’t remember all the rules, you at least have the proper structure.

Practice . . . A lot

You should be writing multiple full, timed essays every day if possible. If not, at the very least, you should go through as many fact patterns and sample answers as you can get your hands on. Spend 10-15 minutes trying your best to spot as many issues as possible in the fact pattern, then stop and look for those same issues in the sample answers. If they have something you don’t, make a note of it, then review that law, and memorize that attack plan. Repeat ad nauseum until exam day.

Muster all the confidence that is humanly possible

That’s one thing I will say for this student I mentioned above, he was unequivocally, immeasurably, supremely confident. Maybe it was his Ivy League background, his coveted firm job, just having academics in general come pretty naturally to him—I’m not sure. He wasn’t blindly or naively confident like, “Well, my intelligence is so superior, I must pass.” He was realistic and had a good-natured level-headed approach to the whole process. He was more like, “If anyone can pull this off, I can.” And you know what? It came through in his writing.

In his essays, even when the law was dead wrong, he pulled it off like it was 100% accurate and he used the facts given. A lot of students struggle with this kind of brashness in their writing. But you know what? The more confident you sound, the less likely the grader will be to question you. Remember, they actually care more about your analysis than how perfect your rule statements were. Granted, this only works to an extent. You can’t go in and say that the elements of Negligence are (1) unreasonableness, (2) intent, (3) duty and (4) a partridge in a pear tree, but you get my point. Be confident. Be arrogant even when it comes to your writing style. Coming across like you know what you’re writing about can never hurt you on this exam. You can’t have too much of it in an essay.

Do all the normal, common sense stuff

These almost go without saying, but use a pretty strict IRAC in your essays and PTs, make sure you’re going fast enough to finish all the components of the exam on time, and address every fact in the fact patterns. Beyond that, cross your fingers, and give it your very best shot. When there’s only 10 days left, that’s really the only choice you’ve got!

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When I work with students, I often find that I need to remind them that one of their jobs while preparing for the bar exam is to become an expert fact pattern reader.

Now this may sound kind of silly. At this point in your legal studies you have likely read hundreds of fact patterns. Aren’t you an expert already? I will argue that if you are struggling with the essay portion of the bar exam, you are not.

What is an expert fact pattern reader?

Let’s use the following example from a real California Bar question (July 2010).

While walking home, Don had to pass through a police checkpoint for contraband. Officer Otis patted down Don’s clothing, found a gun, confiscated it, and released Don.

Read these facts very carefully; what issues do you see? Make yourself a list.

Now that you have your list, compare it to my list:

  1. Validity of the checkpoint
  2. Validity of the pat down

Now perhaps your list is the same as mine. But I have read a lot of failing answers to the question above and the most common mistake was that students skimmed over a very simple word: “checkpoint.”  That single word created a legal issue that needed to be discussed. This wasn’t just a typical pat down. This was done at a checkpoint and there are specific legal standards that must be met for a search to be valid at a checkpoint.  When I see students miss such an issue, I ask them why. The most common responses are “I didn’t see the word checkpoint” or, in my opinion even worse, “I didn’t think it was important.”

Let’s take a moment here to stop and pay very close attention.

There are no immaterial facts in a bar question.  Bar questions are typically short, carefully written, and vetted before being included in a test.  There is very little to no “fluff.” If you see a word like checkpoint, there is a reason for it.  It is there to give you something to talk about!

How do I become an expert fact pattern reader?

So what do you do if you aren’t very good at reading facts? You need to experiment with different ways to get better at reading facts.  A few exercises you might find helpful:

(1) Make a note of each fact in the fact pattern. As you are reading the question, make a mark next to each fact (a little box or a star).  Start to notice how each sentence has at least one important fact in it. When you outline your answer, go back to the question and check off each of the facts you have used. If you have a complete answer, it is likely you have discussed all of them. If you haven’t discussed all of the facts, then ask yourself why the bar examiner included that fact in the question. He was trying to tell you something. Include whatever that is in your outline.

(2) Write your own fact pattern. Another way to fully appreciate how facts relate to an essay answer is to write your own fact pattern based on a set of rules.  This puts you in the shoes of the bar examiner.  Let’s say you want to have the fictional student talk about the rule for burglary, specifically whether or not a dwelling must be an actual house or can be extended to buildings connected to homes or even office spaces.  Perhaps you write a fact pattern where the defendant enters a home office that is located in one’s garage attached to a home. Why a garage and not a house? Because the exam writer wants you to talk about the definition of a dwelling and how strict a legal interpretation the definition is given (for example, can a garage count as a dwelling?). (Note: This fact pattern is from an actual bar question from July 2011.) Writing your own fact patterns is not easy, but it is a great way to test your knowledge of the law and your appreciation of how facts trigger certain legal discussions.

Remember, you won’t get all the possible points if you don’t understand what the bar examiners are asking you. You must become an expert fact reader in order to write a complete exam answer.

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