Bar Exam Essay Tips

The proper way to write an essay will depend greatly on the jurisdiction in which you take the bar examination. The first thing to look at is how much does the essay portion count toward your total grade. If it is less than 30%, then you can probably make it your lowest priority. If it is over 50%, then it should be your highest priority. If it is somewhere in between, then you should adjust accordingly.

The second factor is to determine what are your time and length constraints. For example, in Oregon, you are given 90-minute blocks to write three essays, which works out to 30 minutes per essay. This is not a lot of time to digest a 1/2- to 1-page long fact scenario and write a good essay. The Oregon bar examiners have thought of that and so have imposed page/character limits. If you handwrite the exam, you get three pages; if you type the exam, you get a maximum number of characters which works out to almost exactly one single-spaced typed page. In such a situation, issue-spotting and rule statements are most important, while analysis will be kept to a bare minimum.

In contrast, in a jurisdiction like California, you have 60 minutes per essay and no page limit. Thus, even if you take an excruciatingly long 10 minutes to read the fact scenario and outline your essay, you still have 50 minutes to write. This is why some of the sample answers posted on the bar website read like law review articles. With that much time, analysis becomes king. While it is important to spot all the issues and explain the legal rules applicable or potentially applicable to the situation, if the analysis is lacking, you will fail the essay portion.

Lastly, if possible, get your hands on copies of real essays that have been submitted and graded. Read a few (3-6) for varied subjects before you ever practice writing an essay so that you can get a sense for the format for your jurisdiction. For Oregon, BarBri had copies of actual graded essays in the BarBri essay preparation materials. These were invaluable for at least two reasons: (1) demystifying the process of what gets points from the bar graders and thus lowering stress and (2) seeing that some pretty bad essays earned passing grades and thus raising my confidence level. In California, you can see copies of very good essays on the California bar website. These can be intimidating because many of them are extraordinarily well written. If you go to baressays.com, you can see one sample essay that earned a passing grade of 70 points. You can see that it is good, but not great. Again, confidence building here. [If you are aware of resources for other jurisdictions, please post a comment below. Thanks.]

Applying the Information

Now that you have gathered all of the background information necessary to get the "lay of the land" for your jurisdiction's essay portion of the examination … how to study? As I indicated above, this will depend on the jurisdiction. So, I'll list two study formats: (1) jurisdictions where analysis is minimal (e.g., Oregon) and (2) jurisdictions where analysis is at a premium (e.g., California, Washington – which is an all-essay bar exam, etc.). But first, one thing that is the same no matter where you take the exam is that you need to write out lots of practice essays. I'd recommend at least 5 per subject, which amounts to between 70 and 85 practice essays at a minimum. This means you will need to do several per day on average. You should write these sample essays under varying situations, such as writing a Criminal Law essay immediately after studying Criminal Law for 3 hours and writing a Criminal Law essay a week later after not having studying it for several days. Write essays in blocks under timed conditions simulating your jurisdiction's examination (e.g., Oregon – 3 essays in 90 minutes; California -- 3 essay in 180 minutes). If you don't practice writing essays, you are almost guaranteed to fail the written portion.

Minimal Analysis Jurisdiction

As I mentioned, the premium in a Minimal Analysis Jurisdiction is on issue spotting and setting forth the applicable rule(s) of law. Therefore, ability to spot issues is the most important thing. When you are at the beginning of your bar preparation and are practicing essay writing, be sure to spend an overly long period of time ferreting out every possible and tangential issue from the fact pattern. Write out a basic outline containing all the issues you can find. You can use sample essay questions from other jurisdictions to do this as well since issue spotting is the same no matter who gives the test. Of course, you will not, during the first few weeks, be able to spot all the issues in any given fact pattern because you will not have memorized enough law to do so. This is o.k; give yourself permission not to be perfect because, after all, you are not and cannot be so. The key with the intense issue spotting practice is to learn how the bar examiners in your state “hide the ball.” In other words, you need to start learning which fact patterns are common for particular issues, which issues seem to always or almost always appear together, how the call of the question relates to the issues appearing in the facts, etc. (NB: this is part of the creation of issue pairs that I mention in another post.)

If your jurisdiction imposes a page limit for essays answers, make sure you practice paring down your writing to get all the necessary information in to that length. This can be difficult, especially when writing an essay where the various issues have numerous subparts (e.g., constitutional law, torts, criminal law). During the first few weeks, feel free to exceed the limit. The important part to begin with is to get all of the issues, rules, and analysis in written form. Once you feel comfortable doing that, being to edit yourself. If possible, review examples of actual passing essays to see what information is necessary and is rewarded with points as compared to what information is superfluous and not point-worthy.

Practice writing as many essays as you have time for in the final 2 or 3 weeks before the examination. If you feel you have mastered writing complete essays, then review as many essay questions as possible to practice issue spotting.

Premium Analysis Jurisdiction

What I wrote in the first paragraph under “Minimal Analysis Jurisdictions” applies here as well. The first couple weeks are to learn how to issue spot – in my opinion, you should resist, during the first week of your bar prep course, the temptation to start writing out full-length essay answers. Writing out essays during the first week just induces frustration and anger. You are so overwhelmed at that point that writing bad essays (and they will be bad during the first few weeks) may send you over the edge into self-doubting oblivion.

Unlike with the Minimal Analysis Jurisdictions, the trick with a jurisdiction that gives you a large time allowance and no page limit is to build up stamina. For example, if you spot 5 main issues (each with, of course, multiple sub-issues) in a fact pattern, then you are going to have to write a lot in one hour to provide a thorough analysis. In order to build up the stamina (mental and physical) to accomplish this, you will need to have practiced writing in full numerous essays under exam-like time pressure.

But building up stamina is something that must be done over time. After all, you don't learn how to complete the IronMan triathalon with 1 week of training. I recommend the following steps.

1. Beginning in the second week of your bar prep course, make time to write out several essays per week, either using a pre-made schedule (e.g., PACE) or a schedule of your own creation. These essay responses should be as developed as possible. You will inevitably miss issues, get the law wrong, and make silly mistakes. That is okay, you are building up stamina. Write as much as you can for as long as you need to. Compare your answer to the sample answer. Be proud for the points you got, but acknowledge that you need to do a lot more studying.

2. About the fourth week of bar prep, you should have at least a few subjects fairly well understood. Likely, one of the subjects that appears on the MBE will be at your command to some extent (e.g., Torts, Criminal Law). Whatever subject you feel most knowledgeable about at that time, select at least two essay questions from that subject and write answers to those essays under timed conditions. Write the answers back to back. Review by comparing your answers to the sample answers. Now is the time to start fine tuning your analysis and essay responses. If you missed any issues, make a note to review those topics. The key now is to start determining what analytical steps you are missing and why your interpretation of the facts differed from the sample answer provided. The goal is to get to the point where your essays approximate 85-90% of the sample answers.

3. Rinse and Repeat. In other words, as you gain mastery of the various topics on the essay portion of your jurisdiction's bar examination, write out several essays in a row and analyze what you did right and what you did wrong.

4. Finally, at least once during your bar prep (ideally twice), do a simulated essay day. If your bar has a full-day essay session, do a mock version of it. If it is only a half day essay session, do a mock version of it. The key is to practice under conditions similar to the actual bar examination.

Mental Health Note: if at any point you write 3 or 4 essays in a row that are terrible, take a break from writing essays for a few days. Concentrate on MBE and reviewing outlines. The worst thing you can do while studying for the bar exam is to get to a point where you are constantly telling yourself that you can’t do something or that something is too hard. The bar exam is not harder than law school. The bar exam is, however, a mindf*ck extraordinaire . . . if you let it become one.

In addition to building up stamina, writing essays in a Premium Analysis Jurisdiction requires a much greater depth of knowledge than in a Minimal Analysis Jurisdiction. The greater depth of knowledge is necessary so that your analysis will be complete. If you have enough knowledge, your essays will often be extraordinarily lengthy and even one hour may not seem like enough time to write a response.

The only way to get this depth of knowledge is to study your bar prep materials a lot and know them cold. Honestly, though, this will not be accomplished by reading over each outline 500 times. You need to apply the knowledge in a practical ways in order to truly learn it: (1) writing out essays; (2) developing issue pairings and checklists that make sense to you; and (3) explaining concepts to yourself orally (do this where no one will hear you and think you are a raving lunatic). In short, learn the information and then solidify it through application.



If you would like more help with writing bar exam essays, be sure to get my book, How to Write Bar Exam Essays: Strategies and Tactics to Help You Pass the Bar Exam, available on Amazon, BN, Audible and iTunes.


[Photo: Enokson]


Anonymous said...

this is really great. thank you so much. i am a repeater, and i hope what you have written will be what i need to get over this hump.

Essays Writing said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

BarEssays.com got featured on National Jurist, and is receiving a lot of Likes: http://www.nationaljurist.com/content/how-learn-failure

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous -- thanks for the link. BarEssays.com seems really helpful. I got to see sample essays like that when I studied for the Oregon bar exam (since BarBri provided them). I also think the samples on the Cal bar website are helpful. But the great thing about BarEssays.com is that you can see the really bad essays and learn what NOT to do.

Karen Adele said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee Burgess said...

I agree that Baressays.com can be a good California resource. You can check out my review here: http://barexamtoolbox.com/tools-for-bar-exam-success-baressays-com/. In addition, there are some CA essays posted for free by Be a Goat. http://beagoat.com/sample-essays/

Bar Advisor said...

Thanks for the links, Lee. Especially important now that the California bar has removed so many of the sample essays and PTs from its website!!!

Jack Hall said...
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Anonymous said...

The Bar model answers are easier to understand.

Anonymous said...

Great article, thank you!I am a student and I really need such tips. Besides, I can suggest readers to read the useful article here about different types of essays. Enjoy reading and writing.

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