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!