Tips for Writing a Great #BarExam Essay

A few weeks ago, we talked about tips for succeeding on the multiple-choice portion of the bar exam. But passing the MBE is not enough to find bar exam success (even if it is 50 percent of your state’s exam).  You must be able to conquer the writing portion of the exam as well. So today we focus on how to approach the essay portion of the bar exam.

Instead of thinking about the essay portion of the bar exam as a written exam, think of it as a written interview.

I mentioned this in my first blog post a few weeks ago, and I think it is critical to elaborate on because thinking about the bar exam as one big interview can help you deliver a passing performance.

If instead of showing up at the testing center for a test, what if you were showing up for an in-person interview with a bar grader? Then, what would you think about when preparing?  These are some likely considerations.

  1. Who will be “meeting” with you and evaluating you? Now in California, bar graders are practicing attorneys, many of whom grade the bar exam at night and on the weekends. Although they do get paid, I don’t think most people do it for the money necessarily (you can learn more about California bar grader compensation here).How much information is published about the bar graders depends on the jurisdiction.  For example, in New York the graders are made up of members of the Board of Law Examiners who are appointed by the Court of Appeals. Each one of these board members has teams of practicing attorneys who grade essays and PTs. (The website www.seperac.com has a lot of additional information on the New York bar exam, if you are interested.)So in both New York and California, just as in a job interview, you are meeting with practicing attorneys.  But instead of evaluating you for a job, they are evaluating you as to your readiness to practice law.  That means that you are writing for an attorney. That is very important to keep in mind.Do you know who grades the bar exam in your jurisdiction? If not, you should find out!
  2. What types of questions will be asked in the “interview?” Prior to law school I was a consultant with a large consulting firm. In interviews for consulting jobs, we would frequently be given a business problem and asked to walk through a solution (I remember one was about selling eyeglass frames in Asia—don’t ask me why I remember that one 12 years later!).The bar exam is not all that different. The bar examiners present you with a fact pattern or a performance text in order to test your legal skills, just as my business knowledge and analysis were being tested in the consulting interview. I wasn’t required to know any specifics about the Asian eyeglass market; the focus of the interview was on my analysis of the question at hand.On the bar exam, to a degree you are being evaluated on your knowledge of the law (some jurisdictions specifically call it minimum competency) but as in an interview the real focus is on your analysis of the factual situation.  Do you know how to “think like a lawyer”? And that makes sense, right? Practicing lawyers are evaluating you as to whether or not they think you are ready to be a lawyer.
  3. What will you “wear?” I know that many law students spend a lot of time picking out the perfect interview suit.  Endless debate can be had as to pin stripes versus classic black or skirts versus slacks.  Don’t even get me started on what kind of shoes are appropriate!However, I will be honest, in my experience, many students don’t put the same effort into their written presentation. By written presentation I mean the use of headers and formatting to make your work easy to read for the grader. But if you approach the bar exam like an interview, shouldn’t you focus on looks as well? So in the same way you wouldn’t wear a wrinkled suit to an interview, please don’t present your exam in a sloppy way! It reflects on your professionalism, which is a critical part of the interview and the bar review process.
  4. How will you present yourself with confidence? Attorneys are a confident bunch (or at least we like to think we are). It takes poise to stand up in court or represent a client in a heated negotiation.  In practice, you must be able to communicate in a professional, confident way both in writing and in person. In an interview, of course, you want to present yourself as you would as an attorney—someone the interviewer would want to have on his or her side of a litigation.I would argue the bar exam is no different! You want to show the exam grader that you are the type of lawyer he or she would want to work with! And that attorney is poised, confident, and professional.How do you convey confidence with your writing? You write in a clear and concise way. You state the rules as if you are sure they are the right rules to apply (hopefully you are right).  You argue both sides when appropriate and clearly conclude what you think will be the outcome of the case.
  5. How can you make an impression within a limited time? Have you ever had a short interview? Fifteen minutes or even shorter? To prepare for a short interview, you would likely focus on making sure you put your best foot forward in the time allowed, right?Likewise, it is important to recognize how much time the bar graders spend reading each of your answers. For example, in California, bar graders spend an average of 2 to 3 minutes reading each essay exam and 3 to 5 minutes on the performance exam. I have read reports that in other jurisdictions (especially those with shorter essays) bar graders spend on average 2 minutes grading an essay.So given those statistics, calculate how much time a grader in your jurisdiction will spend grading your entire written exam.  In California that number is about 28 minutes (on the high end) for 12 hours of written exams. That isn’t very long.  So you have limited time to make a good impression. Use what little time you have to make the best impression possible.
  6. How will you be sure to answer the question asked? In an interview, it is very important to answer the question asked by the interviewer.  If you are asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” then don’t talk about your work on law review! The same is true on the bar exam. The call of the question is so important. If the call of the question is in three parts, answer all three parts. If the question asks you to write from the perspective of plaintiff’s counsel, make sure you do that!
  7. How will you answer the questions “correctly?” Now let’s be honest—many of us at times in our interview history have perhaps told an interviewer the answer we know he or she wanted to hear. Let’s take the question above, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Most people know better than to say, “Not working here!” (even if that thought crosses your mind). You frame the answer in a way that will be pleasing to the interviewer.The same is true for the bar exam.  You need to give the bar examiner what is asked for.  Say you are an expert on the present sense impression exception to the hearsay rule. Heck, you even wrote a journal article about it. Should you spend your entire evidence essay talking about present sense impression? No! That is not what the examiner wants to hear. The examiner wants you to go through the different exceptions in a simple and organized way. He or she doesn’t want your in-depth analysis. So don’t do that!

So really though, what are the qualities of a great bar essay answer?

  • It answers the questions asked both from the call of the question and by the facts in the fact pattern.
  • It shows you know how to “think like a lawyer” (or at least how the bar examiners believe you should “think like a lawyer”).
  • It should be written in a professional and confident way.
  • It should be organized with clear headers and helpful formatting.
  • It should display your knowledge of the law.
  • It should be written in the time allowed.

What if you are still struggling with the written portion of the bar exam?

Each jurisdiction is different, with different essay requirements. However, what is universal is that if you are struggling with the writing portion, you must seek help! So what type of help is out there?

  • Hire a tutor. Tutors can give you individualized feedback on your writing.  Many people feel that this is something missing from the bar prep process.  But all tutors are not created equal! You should ask around for recommendations, read testimonials, and even ask for student references if you think that would be helpful.
  • Read books. There are a number of helpful books on writing essay exams. One that I think is helpful is by Mary Campbell Gallagher; it’s called Scoring High on Bar Exam Essays.
  • Review real student essays. I think that many students learn well from reviewing other student essays (both successful and not successful). It puts the student in the place of the grader and shows what can be communicated through the written page. It can be a very powerful study tool! There are different places you can find sample answers. Beyond the model or sample answers published by various bar examiners (California, New York, and MEE), there are other tools for students as well. There are books that give commentary on student essays from various jurisdictions. (See my What NOT to Write California book review here. There are also Massachusetts and New York editions.)  There are also websites that compile sample essays for students to review. (BarEssays.com does this for the California bar.)
  • Check out blog posts on different essay writing tips. Contrary to what many people may think, I think that social media and blogs can help in your bar study.  A lot of practitioners are sharing information and tips for free out there in the blogosphere!  Outside of your study hours you should check out different perspectives and approaches and see what resonates with you. Or if you are planning to take the bar in the future, start reading blogs now in order to familiarize yourself with the tips and tools available.

Treating the essay portion like an interview can help you realize that you already have the skills necessary to be successful.  And focusing on who is evaluating you and how you are being evaluated can help you put together a passing essay.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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3 comments on “Tips for Writing a Great #BarExam Essay

  • Very well said tips Lee. It could be a great help to students who is planning to take their bar exam. This could also be apply on different field of expertise as it will lead you the path of professionalism.

    • Thank you! I agree that we too often don’t think about professionalism as it relates to tests (even those in professional schools). I am glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Thanks for giving me a new perspective to consider as I plan to sit for my state bar exam in two years. Having enrolled into law school several years after being in the non-legal workforce, I can absolutely appreciate viewing the bar exam as a job interview … something I believe I can do! Thanks for the blog research tip, too – getting an advanced start on preparation always keeps me sane!

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