The bar exam demands mastery of concepts and content. For the multiple choice section, that is enough. However, for the rest of the bar exam, you have to be able to communicate that mastery in written form. The National Conference of Bar Examiners writes, “The primary distinction between the [Multistate Essay Examination (MEE)] and the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is that the MEE requires the examinee to demonstrate an ability to communicate effectively in writing.” Further, the California Bar explains that answers should “evidence the applicant’s ability to apply the law to the given facts and to reason in a logical, lawyer-like manner from the premises adopted to a sound conclusion.” To “communicate effectively in writing,” it is important to reconsider some of the writing basics you likely learned in elementary school, but that you might have lost track of while focusing on Bluebooking in your legal research and writing class. Give some thought to your writing skills as you grade your practice essays. Try to make tweaks along the way to make your writing as crisp and readable as possible come exam day.
This post does require a significant disclaimer upfront. The bar exam is neither a grammar test nor a creative writing exercise. Your bar exam prep focus should certainly remain on knowing your law and honing your bar exam essay writing strategies. (For a quick primer on strategy, read Ben Nelson’s How to Approach a Uniform Bar Exam Subject Essay (MEE).) The California Bar is unequivocal regarding its grading of grammar, spelling, and the like: “The quality of handwriting or the accuracy of spelling and grammar are not considered [when] assigning a grade to an applicant’s answer.” That said, if you lose your grader because of organizational or grammatical errors, lack of attention to these issues can impact your bar success even if the grading rubric attempts to deny it.
Without further adieu, consider this short list of writing reminders to improve the clarity and precision of your writing when communicating your answers to your grader.
Each question is going to throw a lot at you. Staying organized in your response is key. In addition to subheaders and subparts, make use of transition words to clearly indicate to the grader (and yourself) what the purpose of this sentence will be. Transitions are words or phrases that usually come at the beginning of a sentence that flag something to the reader like “first,” “also,” “however,” or “in conclusion.” While your bar exam essay writing strategy should keep your answer organized at a macro level, intentionally using transition words throughout your answer can help improve the readability and help you keep each sentence on task.
For a deeper dive on transitions, see The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s treatment of the Transitions topic.
As in any legal writing, clarity amid complexity is key. Ensure you do not introduce ambiguity with the use of pronouns. If your prompt describes the actions of Mike, Jerry, and Steve, using the pronoun “he” to refer to a particular actor could introduce a problem with your answer. For bar-exam purposes, remember that style takes second place to utility. While restating the name of a particular actor may sound repetitive, if there is any room for doubt, just restate the name and keep moving. Saving a few keystrokes or making the paragraph flow better is not worth potentially losing points because the grader could not be sure you were referring to the correct party.
3. Parallel Structure
When you introduce a list of things, to ensure clarity, make all items in the list parallel. For example, rather than “Sally likes to eat Mexican food, snow skiing, and to watch movies,” you would write “Sally likes to eat Mexican food, go snow skiing, and watch movies.” It may seem like a simple thing, but if you are packing a sentence with a lot of content, checking for parallel structure can ensure clarity. Not requiring a grader to read and reread to try to understand your sentence is always the goal.
For more on this topic, see the Purdue University Online Writing Lab’s treatment of parallel structure.
If you graduated law school, punctuation is not an issue for you, right? Probably not, but even law school graduates can misplace a comma. Again, the bar exam is not a grammar test, so if on test day you cannot decide if the sentence needs a comma or not, just ignore the internal question and keep moving. But if you come across a question as you are grading a practice essay, go find the answer and try to make a habit of correctly applying the rule in the future.
For an accessible resource for punctuation questions, check out The Punctuation Guide.
Bar prep is a time for fine tuning your abilities to give you the best chance of overall success on your bar exam. While these writing tips may not be bar prep headliners, they just might help you tally a few more points on the MEE. Best of luck!