The Spine-chilling Tale of The Bar Examiner

Darkness falls upon the land. Blood-curdling screams are heard in the distance. Is it a werewolf attack? The zombie apocalypse? No, something far more sinister…The Bar Exam.

On this Halloween, I want to tell you the spine-chilling tale of The Bar Examiner. A great many law school graduates have fallen victim to this blood-thirsty fiend. Some have survived to tell the tale, while others have disappeared from the legal profession, never to be seen again.

Does The Bar Examiner possess supernatural powers? If by supernatural, you mean having the power to destroy your dreams of becoming a licensed attorney, then I’m afraid the answer is “yes”. While The Bar Examiner cannot damn you straight to the fires of hell, it can send you to purgatory where you would exist in an agonizing state of limbo between law school and the practice of law.

Does this monster get its evil powers direct from Satan? Well, not exactly. The Bar Examiner derives its authority from your state’s Office of Bar Admissions. How does it exercise such evil powers over innocent law school graduates? By giving you a score that does not reflect your true knowledge and ability on the essays and MPT (Multistate Performance Test).

Just like vampires and werewolves can turn you into one of their kind with a single bite, the attorneys who grade your bar exam answers can transform you into one of their own with a single stroke of their red pen. But, before they will bestow their powers upon you, they must deem you worthy enough to join their ranks. Therefore, you must prove that you can think and express yourself like a member of the legal profession.

To succeed, you must do the following:

  1. Answer essay questions in the time allotted. Just like a vampire racing back to his coffin before the coming sunrise, time is not on your side when you are taking the bar exam. Therefore, you must practice writing essay and MPT answers under timed conditions to be sure that you will succeed in writing complete answers under the tremendous time pressures of the actual exam.
  2. What will it take to appease The Bar Examiner? A human sacrifice? Your first-born child? No. To satisfy this monster you must organize your answer in a way that is pleasing to the grader and makes his or her job easier by responding to the issues in a logical order. Use complete sentences and paragraphs that are responsive to the call of the question. Respond to all parts of the question and avoid angering the grader by raising issues that are not responsive to the call of the question.
  3. Like a silver bullet or a stake through the heart, The Bar Examiner does have a weakness: the IRAC method. If you use it effectively to identify key issues, cite relevant RULES of black-letter law, analyze facts, and reason to a lawyer-like conclusion then IRAC will be your silver bullet. Use it to craft an answer that leaves The Bar Examiner no choice but to give you a passing score.
  4. On Halloween, zombies roam the earth in search of human brains. Similarly, bar exam graders are seeking evidence that you have a brain (and know how to use it). Therefore, they are not simply looking for the “right” answer. Instead they want an essay that demonstrates your ability to engage in legal thought and analysis. The value of your answer is not based upon the conclusion reached, but rather your understanding of the facts, recognition of the issues, use of applicable principles of law, and the reasoning by which you arrive at your conclusion.

If you follow my advice, you just might live to tell the tale of the day you crossed paths with The Bar Examiner!

Happy Halloween!

How to fail the Bar Exam Essays in 6 easy steps

You may be asking: “Why wouldn’t a bar applicant do everything possible to AVOID failing the bar exam essays?”  When teaching bar review students, I often wonder why so many sabotage themselves.  When it comes to bar prep, too often we are our own worst enemies. So, if you want to fail the bar exam essays, here are six easy steps you can follow:

STEP 1: Do NOT write practice essays

The bar exam requires you to write essays on a variety of legal subjects. The best way to prepare is to get a hold of recent exams and write as many practice essays as you can under timed conditions. Then review your answers by comparing them with sample answers. However, when asked whether they wrote practice essays, students who failed the exam often answer “no” or “not many”. Instead they spent the bulk of their study time simply memorizing the law.

STEP 2: Be a passive learner

The bar exam does not simply test your knowledge of black-letter law (that would be too easy). What it really tests is your ability to apply the law to various fact patterns by responding to the call of the question in a lawyer-like fashion. You cannot learn this vital skill by simply memorizing and reviewing the law (what I call “passive” studying).

There is only so much you can learn from staring at an outline. Until you understand how a legal concept can be applied to a bar exam fact pattern, you have not truly mastered that concept for bar exam purposes.

Instead of passively reviewing the law, you must actually sit down and write practice essay answers under timed conditions. Then you must take the time to compare your answers with sample answers to discover what you missed and look for ways to improve. Your early efforts will usually be terrible. Do not get discouraged. This is part of the process and to be expected. It is the steady improvement that comes from learning from your mistakes that will carry to victory on the bar exam. Those who roll up their sleeves and engage in this process (what I call “active” studying) find that it yields fantastic results over time.

STEP 3: Do NOT use the IRAC method

Every law student has heard of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) but few know how to use it effectively. When used properly, the IRAC format demonstrates to the grader that you know what you are doing. Bar exam graders read hundreds of answers to the same question. After the first dozen or so, they have a pretty good idea of what they are looking for. If your answer does not conform to this template, you have just made the grader’s job more difficult. Any frustration that the grader feels in deciphering your answer will be reflected in your grade.

STEP 4: Do NOT answer the call of the question

Aside from not writing in IRAC form, the next most damaging thing you can do to sabotage your own essay grade is to not follow instructions. The bar examiners only want you to discuss certain issues in your essay answers. These issues are raised by the “call of the question”, that portion of the question that tells you what is required to answer it. If you fail to address the question asked or if your answer goes beyond the scope of the question to discuss unrelated issues, you will annoy the grader and sabotage your own score.

STEP 5: Do NOT organize your answer before you write it

Time management is a major factor in your essay writing success. One of the biggest mistakes that I see students make over and over on bar exam essays is to begin writing the moment they open their blue books. Instead, what they should be doing is using the first five or ten minutes of their allotted time on each essay to organize their thoughts and plan their answer. Most jurisdictions will provide scratch paper or at the very least permit you to make notes on the face of the question. Use this space to plan out your essay. No one will see these notes except you so do not worry what you write there. Simply get all of your ideas on paper in as few words as possible. Then number each idea in the order in which you plan to discuss it, leading with your most important issues first. Eliminate from your list any issues that do not fit the call of the question.  This simple process will prevent you from wasting precious time and space on issues that are not going to earn you many points.

STEP 6: Do NOT show the bar examiner what you know

Do not assume (because the person grading your essay is an attorney) that you do not need to explain the relevant points of law (because, after all, he or she already knows what “res ipsa loquitur” means). Remember, it is not the grader’s knowledge that is being tested here. It is yours. Therefore, you must act as if your reader knows very little about the issues tested and be sure to explain your answers fully. You cannot get credit for knowing something unless it actually appears in your answer.

If you choose to follow the numbered steps listed above, I have no doubt that you will achieve failure on the bar exam essays. But if you choose to follow my detailed advice instead, your chances of achieving a passing score on the bar exam essays will improve dramatically. Choose wisely!

Essay Advice: Write like a lawyer

Many bar applicants lose sight of the fact that the bar examiners are testing your ability to communicate in a lawyer-like fashion.

Perhaps your law school professors were forgiving of your stylistic errors as long as they understood your arguments. If so, bear in mind that in many states the essays will be graded not by law professors, but rather by practitioners (lawyers and judges). When these attorney-graders read your essay, they are asking themselves only one thing: Is this someone I would want to deal with on a legal matter? If your essay answer is filed with sloppy language, sloppy reasoning and sloppy conclusions, they will conclude that you are not.

Ask any attorney practicing today and they will tell you that there is already a surplus of bad lawyers in the profession. Therefore, if you fail to communicate your answer in a lawyer-like fashion, you may remind the graders of all the terrible lawyers they are already dealing with on a day-to-day basis and they are going to want to weed you out now lest they end up sitting across from you someday on a legal matter and have to decipher your incomprehensible pleadings and correspondence.

On your bar exam essays, always write in full sentences and pay attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Be sure that your answers are responsive to the questions asked and are based upon logical arguments. Make use of the IRAC method and always reason your way to a lawyer-like conclusion.

Do not forget that the bar exam is all about proving to the bar examiners that you are worthy of being granted admission to their profession.