Constructing Bar Exam Essay Responses

You already know bar exam essay questions are different from law school exam essay questions. Bar exam essay questions are straight-forward: no unnecessary facts, red herrings, or tricks. Unlike law school exam responses which require in-depth analysis, counter-analysis, and policy arguments, bar exam responses should be simple and formulaic with shallow fact application. They are easy but different so you must learn how to construct a strong response.

The title of this post is constructing bar exam essay responses. Not answering or writing essay responses. Constructing. There is a difference. You are being graded on substance, structure, and style, so you have to learn the what and the how. Constructing a response means focusing on the process, not the product.

  • Learn in context: seeing the question is a preview of what you be tested on and how it will appear on the exam. Fact patterns repeat and question structures are often based on a basic pattern. If you identify what those patterns are, you know how to prepare for them.
  • Practice perfect: use your notes/outline when you go through the questions and don’t worry about timing. At this stage, you are learning how to learn: what facts trigger certain issues, how to develop synthesized rule statements, how to produce a response that is complete yet within the character count (3900 characters, including spaces).

Here is an example that illustrates these points:

You get a Torts essay question where the plaintiff is a repair person injured while fixing the sink. She tripped on a tear in the carpet while walking from her toolbox to the sink. You know its negligence and think, “duty, breach, cause, damages” and go to the commercial outline where there are 12 pages on the topic. This is too much information. You flip through and under “duty” you see a section on “landowner liability.” You see that the landowner’s duty depends on the plaintiff’s status at the time of injury and realize that your analysis should focus on this rule, not the general “duty, breach, cause, damages.” You confirm this by looking through the hypo again where you see facts about plaintiff’s status as an invitee as well as the open and obvious defense. You use the outline to craft synthesized rule statements and then work through the problem making sure to apply the specific facts to your rules.  

“Bad Fall”  by  Louish Pixel  Courtesy Flicker
  • Did this take a little longer than 30 minutes? Probably.
  • Do you now have a strategy for how to answer a premises liability question? Yes.
  • Is it a better response than had you tried to use “duty, breach, cause, damages?” Absolutely.

Stop trying to rush the process. It takes time but it will pay off in the end.


Bar Exam Studying: Learning in Context

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of learning how to construct bar exam essay responses.  At this stage of bar prep, practicing the process is important and so it using your notes/outlines as you answer questions. This is learning in context which is an efficient and effective way to absorb a lot of material and develop skills in a condensed period of time. Here are additional suggestions for learning in context:

(1) Time reviewing = Time doing. After answering a question, compare it to the released response and reconcile the differences. Don’t assume the released response is correct or that you are wrong. Figure it out.

Why do this? Reviewing your work helps you learn and remember both process and substance.

(2) Build a rules outline. Go through essay responses and pull out the synthesized rules from each and add to a running list for each subject.

Why do this? Creating a complete and concise outline as you go along breaks up a big task which makes it easier to remember the individual rules and how they fit together.

(3) Create a key term bank for different subjects. As you work through the material and answer questions, certain words and phrases will show up again and again. Make a list of these key terms for each subject and make sure you use them in your responses.

Why do this? It facilitates learning because it helps organize and connect concepts, and also serves as a trigger for when your mind goes blank (and it will). If you can remember one word, you can create a rule.

(4) Answer the same question twice. Make note of which essay questions you answered early in the study process and in mid-July (when you actually know the law), answer them again without using notes. Compare your responses. You will immediately notice things you much you’ve improved.

Why do this? It is proof that you know and understand the material. It also gives you a feel for what you know well and what you don’t so you can focus your studying on the weaker subjects.

There is no one right way to study and learn. Try a few of these strategies and see what works best for you.