Essay writing is the only skill required on every bar exam in the United States. More importantly, it’s one that many bar takers fail to adequately practice because they assume (often wrongly) that if they were able to successfully write law school exam essays they should be able to successfully write bar exam essays.
The truth is bar exam essays are very different than law school essays, and bar examiners are different than your law professors.
First of all, the vast majority of bar examiners are practitioners, not professors. Since they are used to reading memos or briefs, not lengthy final exams, you’ll want to make sure your writing is clear and concise and that it demonstrates these three key competencies:
Substantive Legal Knowledge
The examiners want to make sure you know the area of law involved in the question and the specific rules that are relevant under the facts. The key word here is relevant. The bar exam tests your ability to answer the question asked, not to memorize a vast quantity of law. In most cases spouting irrelevant law will not get you any points, and in some cases it can actually cost you points.
You must show the grader that you know what to do with the facts. In other words, you have show how the facts, when applied to your rule support your conclusion. This is the number one reason that people fail the essay portion of the bar exam, and in a state like Ohio where the essays are 2/3 of the score it is the number one reason people fail the bar exam.
Imagine you are a bar examiner. You have over 1,000 essays to grade and all you want to do is finish. What makes it easier to finish? Effective communication. You’ll want to minimize spelling errors and avoid grammatical errors, both of which distract the grader. Most importantly, you’ll want to take the time to outline and organize. A short, well organized, clearly written answer beats a long, rambling wreck of an answer every single time.
Bar exam essay writing is a skill that can be mastered through practice and focus on these three key areas.
You know the old adage? When you want something done, you can get it done fast, cheap, or well – but you only get to pick two. Fast and cheap? It may not be quality work. Cheap and well? That’ll take some time.
Unfortunately, you may not be getting paid quite yet. We’ve got to finish this whole “bar exam” thing together first. That leaves you with fast and well, two conflicting factors that you need to master for your bar exam essay writing. In the spirit of swiftness, I’m going to dive straight into a few quick tips for how to write bar exam essays fast and well.
1. Writing Bar Exam Essays Well
We’re deliberately flipping the order here by starting with well.
Despite what you may think, the general structure for writing a bar exam essay well is simpler than writing fast. Start with writing well, practice writing well, and the speed will come.
Read the facts more than once
I know, I know. When fast is an important element of this test, how could you possibly have time to read a long fact pattern more than once?
One of the bigger mistakes for bar exam essay writing is merely skimming the problem for relevant material, trying to swiftly extract a handful of relevant facts and principles of law before hammering at the keyboard.
This is a mistake.
Without careful, deliberate analysis of the essay you will inevitably miss crucial factors and elements that will cost you points.
Think of it this way: on the other end of that essay is a grader literally making check marks with a pen across your writing. Ultimately, the points you’ll receive on the essay portion of the bar exam largely amounts to just that – check marks.
Show the grader that you carefully read the facts, found all (or most) principles of law, and earned every stroke of that pen.
Read the facts while you outline
Maybe some of you outline regularly before answering an essay or a question, and if so you’re in a good spot. Others may be like me. Truth is, I don’t enjoy outlining. I just prefer writing improvisationally, diving right in, getting “in the zone” and letting the flow take over.
Don’t do that.
Six essays, at thirty minutes each, means the time constraints for the essay portion of the bar exam are simply too stringent to risk writing without at least a brief period of planning what you’re going to write.
Now, that doesn’t mean not to start the process until after you’ve read once or twice. Mark it up as you go. Your outline can be a formal list of bulleted points, or it can be further represented in the underlines, circles, and marks strewn across your question. These marks will help you recall important facts, relevant rules, and ultimately draw your eye to necessary factors while you write.
You own this essay question. Mark it up, make it yours.
2. Writing Bar Exam Essays Fast
Time management is a very important aspect of all sections of the bar exam. Once you’ve got the general flow of writing a well organized, structured essay, getting swift at it is essential.
Keep track of time, and move on when it’s time to move on.
It can be incredibly tempting to spend extra time on a question. After all, you just remembered a dissenting Supreme Court opinion that applies to this question. You just know the bar examiner is going to be impressed when you note it!
These essay questions are often complex and convoluted, involving potentially dozens of legal principles and rules. I’ve had to grit my teeth knowing that there’s one or two more concepts I could write about if I just had the time, but ultimately wrapping up my answer and moving on.
Why? Time was up. Always move forward.
It’s as simple as that. If you let two or three extra minutes slip by on each essay trying to claim a last point or two, you’ll arrive at your last question without enough time to claim even half the points on the table.
Even worse, we’ve all heard the horror stories of someone without enough time to write anything on the final essay. Not keeping track of time is a potentially fatal mistake on the bar exam.
Practice under timed conditions!
All right, you knew this one was coming. It is absolutely essential not only to practice writing bar exam essays, but to do so under timed conditions.
Organizing and writing under the pressure of the clock is a learned skill. So is zeroing in on what you believe is essential for including in order to answer the call of the question, and making a hard decision on a few questions to cut out additional details in the interest of time.
Previous MEE questions and analyses can be found here, and I recommend doing questions under timed conditions before reading over the answer for genuine self-assessment.
I hope you enjoyed these quick tips for how to write bar exam essays fast and well! I recommend perusing our other articles for many helpful tips, tricks, explanations, and insights into the examination.
Best of luck demolishing those essay questions. You’ve got this.