You know everything there is to know about quorums. You’re an expert at constitutional standards of review. You’ve got the Rule Against Perpetuities down cold (maybe…).* Now what? It’s not enough to simply parrot rules of law on the bar exam. You’ve got to show the examiners that you actually understand the rules and know how to apply them. For that, you’ll need to focus on presentation.
Sounds obvious, right? But much time is wasted and many points are lost by focusing on issues that the bar examiners aren’t actually asking about. Read every bar exam question carefully to ensure that you understand what, exactly, is being asked. Does the question say that two parties entered into “a valid contract”? If so, don’t waste time discussing offer, acceptance, and consideration. The examiners are clueing you in to the fact that there is some other issue more worthy of your time. Likewise, be sure to follow any instructions given in the question. If the question tells you to ignore something, ignore it! If it tells you to assume a fact is true, assume it! If you don’t follow directions and spend time on uncontested issues, you are robbing yourself of time you should be spending on issues presented by the call of the question. And those are the ones worth the points!
It’s important to make clear to the examiners that you can effectively communicate the law and its application to clients and judges; it’s not enough to just spew everything you know about a certain subject onto the page. One way to keep yourself organized is to use transitional words, which serve as signposts throughout your answer and tell your reader what you plan to do. Words such as “generally” let the examiners know that there is a widely applicable rule, but also tells them that an exception may apply. Words like “here” and “in this case” signal that you are beginning your analysis, applying the law to the facts at hand. Words like “however” or “on the other hand” indicate that you plan to introduce a counterargument, and can keep your answer from seeming to contradict itself. By showing the examiners where you plan to go, you make it easier for them to follow your analysis, maximizing your points! A bonus: organizing your writing doesn’t just benefit your reader, it also helps you organize your thoughts and stay on track!
...Issue. Rule. Analysis. Conclusion. Following the IRAC format ensures that you are including only what is relevant and necessary. Each time you review one of your answers to a practice essay, go through and label each sentence with I, R, A, or C. If you can’t label a part of your answer, chances are it doesn’t belong! Hints: Counterarguments are part of your analysis (and get an “A”). Policy and historical explanations usually don’t belong! It sometimes makes sense to use a “mini-IRAC” format, further breaking down your analysis into more specific rules and analysis. This can be useful when you have to discuss several elements that each have their own rules of law, such as in a specific performance analysis.
Take the time to carefully read the call of the question first. This allows you to read the rest of the question more effectively, looking for key facts that are going to shape your answer. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the fact pattern and the players involved. After you read the call of the question again, take a few minutes to outline your answer. This includes sketching your rule statement, listing the key facts that will support your analysis, and taking stock of the amount of time you will spend on each subpart. Many students think that they don’t have any time to waste on outlining. However, by setting forth your rule, organizing the relevant facts, and allocating your time among the subparts, you will actually save time in the long run. Become adept at outlining answers as you study.
Most importantly, don’t use more than the allotted time for each question—even if it is just five minutes. Avoid the snowball effect—if you spend an extra five minutes on each question, you will run out of time on your final question! Watch your timing carefully, and when your time is up, quickly wrap up and move on.
Remember that the bar exam is pass/fail. You have no job or grade riding on your specific score. You do not need to dazzle the examiners with your new theories or analysis, as you might a law professor. You are trying to pass the bar exam. I tell my students to imagine that the examiners are lawyers who are experts in every topic but the one in question: they should use legal terms and phrases as if speaking to attorneys, but should also be careful not to skip any steps in analysis. For example, if you think that a statement is admissible under the dying declaration to the hearsay rule, you must first explain what hearsay is, then explain that it is generally inadmissible, and then explain that there are certain exceptions. Show your work.
Keep these essay-writing tips in mind, and you should be well on your way to bar exam success!
* It may seem impossible that you will ever master all of the law you’ll need for the bar exam. But you will eventually get there!
Sophie Dye Gayle is an Editor and Academic Director for Themis Bar Review. Sophie began her law career at a small IP firm in Chicago, where she defended students in file-sharing litigation and defended the privacy of individuals whose images and personalities were exploited on the internet. She's passed five bar exams, lived in four states, teaches three law school classes (one at DePaul and two at Loyola, her alma mater), has two kids, and has met one member of Hall & Oates.