Bar Exam Essay Strategy Horse

People fail the bar exam because they don’t finish the essays. They spend so much time on an early essay that they can’t write the later essays. Or they work on all of the essays, but without finishing some or all of them. Either way, these bar candidates are writing too slowly, and it costs them their ticket to a law license. Change what you do, and you can finish the essays and your tasks on the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) or the California Performance Test (PT), perhaps even with time to spare.

Here is how to write the bar exam essays faster.

  1. Use the time allotted as a guidance for your structure. Write down what time you will start each essay and what time you will finish. Most state bar exams allow you 20, 30, 45 or 60 minutes for each essay. Find out how much time your state allows. Always be conscious of time. Develop a sense of urgency. Write down what time you will start and finish each paragraph. Most paragraphs will take between six and eight minutes, depending on the length of the essay.
  2. Always use principles of law to make your outline. You must read each fact pattern two or three times while you outline—not reading carefully is no way to save time. Outline based on the rules of law and, where applicable, by plaintiff-defendant pairs. You may change your mind about your conclusions while you are working on the essay. As Scott Turow says in One-L, a fact pattern can seem to go through “Merlin-like changes” as you work. But you won’t change your mind about whether answering that essay question requires applying the UCC Statute of Frauds. Circle key facts in the fact pattern if you must, but don’t try writing the facts into your outline. Focus on the law. Then you can apply it to the facts as you draft your essay.
  3. Once you have your outline ready, think the essay through quickly, and then start writing. One bar candidate who came to me complaining about never finishing the bar exam essays turned out to be taking an extra five minutes to make a list of all the facts before he started writing. Don’t do that. Don’t stew in your outline, don’t fester, don’t rewrite your outline or make new notes or rewrite the facts. Just start! Slow writers are usually writers who stall at the beginning. Train yourself to start fast.
  4. Treat each paragraph as a separate timed task, like a short-answer question. Mentally plan how to prove your points, using law and facts, within the time you have available for each paragraph. Decide in your head how you will prove your points, checking to make sure that you can write down your ideas in time. Then work your plan. Constantly check to make sure you are on time. You are not being paid by the word, like Dickens. Do not keep desperately trying to give the bar examiners every suggestion they might conceivably reward. Your job is just to be professional and to start and finish on time.
  5. Before the exam, train yourself to write concisely. Then use your self-editing skills on the bar exam. American legal writing is more like Hemingway than like Melville. Everything is active voice, not passive voice. Write:  The murderer shot the victim, not: The victim was shot by the murderer. Use few or no modifiers. Write: The murderer shot the victim, not: The cruel murderer shot the helpless victim. Practice making your writing and your thinking concise. Figure out how to paraphrase the newspaper reports you read. Figure out how to summarize case holdings in a few words. Make it a game. Practice outlining and writing old bar exam essays, always keeping track of the time, using a stopwatch or a kitchen timer.

When it comes to passing the bar exam, writing concisely is second only to knowing the law and applying it.

Originally published 2012-06-05.

Last updated October 13th, 2017.

Read the next post in this series: "Tips for Finishing the Bar Exam Performance Test on Time."

​Academic Success

​The Academic Success Program offers a variety of services and programs specially designed to help law students succeed during each year of their studies.

Academic Success Fellows

An upper-division academic success fellow for each first year class—in most cases, someone who took the class previously with the same professor, did very well in the class, and attends the class again with you—will be available to help you develop effective law school study skills. The academic success fellows hold weekly office hours, open to all first year students. The office hour schedule is posted online and the bulletin board outside the Academic Success Resource Center, at Warren Hall room 206. Be sure to check the bulletin board weekly for any changes or cancellations.

Study Skills Workshops

Workshops on such topics as "Outlining" and "Final Exam Preparation" are presented throughout the semester. The workshops are specifically designed for first year students and are led by the academic success fellows for your section. Workshop descriptions and dates for each section are posted online or see the bulletin board located outside of Warren Hall room 206.

Class-Specific Handouts

For each first year class, academic success fellows prepare hypotheticals and quizzes that you can use on your own or in your own study groups each week to help you master the material. These handouts are available on TWEN starting a week or two after classes begin. Instructions for accessing TWEN are posted online, as well as on the bulletin board located outside of Warren Hall room 206.

Academic Success Resource Center

Available to all students, the Academic Success Resource Center (ASRC) offers free use of popular supplements for a variety of first year, upper-division, and bar preparation courses. Located in Warren Hall room 206B, these materials are available for check-out for up to three days at a time, and you can come back as often as you need. Additionally, there are free digital versions of many helpful supplements available online through the law library. Be sure to click on "Law School Study Aids."

Individual Academic Counseling

The Director of Academic Success & Bar Programs is available to meet with students regarding study strategies, exam preparation and bar preparation planning. Email lawacademicsuccess@sandiego.edu to make an appointment.

Study Groups

In the fall, a small number of students will be invited to join study groups run by the academic success fellows. The goal of study groups during the fall semester is to assist in creating an equal opportunity for academic development and excellence for participating students. Invitations to participate are issued based on a holistic admissions file review conducted by the Director of Academic Success & Bar Programs. Typically, study groups are composed of those most in need based on a variety of factors, including, but not limited to:

  • Writing ability based on LSAT writing sample
  • Distance from home or last residence
  • Culturally underrepresented in the legal profession
  • Low income background
  • First generation in college
  • Entering LSAT or GPA
  • Educationally disadvantaged
  • Physically or learning disabled
  • Non-traditional students
  • Students affected by bias

Over the years we have learned that, without early intervention, it can take weeks or months for some students affected by the factors above to thrive in the law school environment. While we cannot factor in or out every advantage or disadvantage, our goal is to level the playing field to the extent possible for all students during their first semester of law school. Once fall semester grades are available, spring semester study groups are formed (again, led by academic success fellows) based on law school grades.

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