The MPT – What does it really test?

The Multistate Performance Test (MPT) is the most misunderstood part of the bar exam. However I do not blame students for failing to appreciate what the MPT is all about. They are only relying upon what they are told.

According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ MPT Information Booklet, “The MPT is designed to test an applicant’s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation. Each test evaluates an applicant’s ability to complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish.” So, the bar examiners would have you believe that the MPT simulates a typical day in the life of a newly hired legal associate.

Let’s be honest. How often do you think a first year law associate at a firm is approached by his or her boss and handed a memo asking the associate to draft a document he or she has never before drafted, which must be completed in only 90 minutes? Furthermore, the attorney has never heard of or met the client and must rely solely upon the factual information contained in a small file. Plus the attorney cannot do any legal research but must instead rely solely upon the legal sources contained in another folder, all of which are totally unfamiliar to the attorney. Oh, and did I mention that the attorney will be punished if he or she uses any prior legal knowledge in the preparation of this document?

Unfortunately, too many bar applicants buy into this fiction that the MPT simulates your ability to practice law. If that were true, then bar applicants who clerked for law firms during law school or who practiced law in other jurisdictions would have no trouble scoring high on the MPT with little or no outside preparation. However, my experience as a bar review instructor has shown me otherwise.

The truth is that the MPT really only tests one thing . . . your ability to take an MPT. The sooner you recognize this fact, the sooner you can devise an effective game plan for conquering the MPT.

Unfortunately, many students decide that they do not need to prepare for the MPT because they believe that they already possess the skills that the bar examiners claim to be testing. These students are shocked to find that their legal writing skills do not translate to success on the MPT. This is mainly due to the fact that the MPT is an artificial exercise.  In real life, you usually have more than 90 minutes to familiarize yourself with a case and to research the relevant facts and law. You can also take more time to draft the document and revise it as necessary.

If the bar examiners gave unlimited time to complete each MPT, most students would eventually figure out what to do. Unfortunately, your time on the MPT is limited. It turns out that 90 minutes is never enough time to do justice to these MPT questions. However, since that is all the time that you or anyone else ever gets on an MPT question, you must learn to complete a passable answer in that amount of time. This is a skill that must be practiced.

In your practice sessions, try to break down the MPT exercise into a series of tasks and then try to get a sense of your timing for each task. In other words, how long does it take you to read and understand the task memo? How long does it take to extract the relevant facts from the file? How long does it take you to figure out the relevant legal principles in the library? How long does it take you to organize and outline your answer? How long does it take you to draft your answer? If you find that you are exceeding the 90 minute time limit on your practice MPTs, then figure out which part of the process is slowing you down and work on ways to speed that up. As you do more practice MPTs, you should be able to improve your speed in each area as you develop a better appreciation for what you need to do. You will be able to more quickly complete each of the above tasks without any reduction in the quality of your answers.

Spend no more than the allotted time (90 minutes) doing a practice MPT question. When you are done, be sure to allocate at least as much time for reviewing your MPT answer as you spent doing the MPT question (another 90 minutes). Therefore, you should allocate a total of three hours to a practice MPT question to allow enough time to complete the answer and review it.

Make your mistakes on the practice tests not on the real exam. Your first few attempts at taking an MPT will probably not go well.  Do not get discouraged. If you take each opportunity to practice and improve you will find that not only will you be able to complete each question in less time but your answer will more closely resemble what the Drafters’ Point Sheet (the answer key provided by the National Conference of Bar Examiners) describes as the ideal answer.

So heed my MPT advice and pretty soon you could be a real law firm associate working on a real legal assignment. Hopefully, your real boss gives you more than 90 minutes to complete it!