Fact: It’s never too early to refine your approach to essay writing to crush it on the bar. These tips will help you gear up to write some practice essays during bar prep, and maximize the points you grab from the board of bar examiners during the big show.
Two Types of Questions
There are Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) questions and essays written by the state board of bar examiners. Know which type you will encounter, because the rules and topics will vary. MEE questions are written be the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and are graded by state bar examiners. The state essay questions are written by the particular state’s board of bar examiners and/or practicing attorneys and will be graded by the same. The amount of time allotted for each question will vary depending on where you are testing. MEE bar takers are typically given 30 minutes per essay, but some states allow 30-60 minutes for responses. Knowing how much time you have to answer will help you develop an attack strategy. The subject that might be tested will also vary between MEE states and state-specific exams. Learning what you will face is critical, so do your homework early.
The Question is Calling
Issue spotting is king. If you don’t know what the bar examiners are looking for, you will only stumble into those points. There are typically three types of questions: general multi-issue, issue-specific, and interrogatories.
With the multi-issue questions, the call of the question will be pretty general. For example, the question will present you with a client who needs your advice in a particular area of law and ask for a memo discussing the client’s rights and remedies.
The issue-specific questions will have a more tailored call of the question with one to three issues that you will need to analyze. These questions will require a more succinct analysis. For example, the question will ask: What, if any, liability does a client face under the circumstances described in the fact pattern.
The interrogatory-based questions will look like the short-answer questions you have grown to love in law school exams. An example might be: Explain whether the officer’s seizure of evidence from the suspect’s living room violated the suspect’s constitutional rights.
How to Approach
In my experience, it has really helped to know where I am going to end up before I set out to answer the question. This might reduce rambling, save you precious time, and keep you focused on the call of the question.
- Start with the question and the last one or two sentences before the question.
- Next, read the facts. It makes sense to underline, highlight, or make notes (if possible) to help with the next step.
- After that, quickly outline the issues. Follow the basic IRAC/CRAC format. The bar examiners know this structure and can quickly consume your answer if you present an organized, familiar response pattern.
- Finally, begin writing by filling in your narrative around the outline you drafted. If you run out of time, the outline that you drafted might get you a few points.
Short and Sweet
The bar examiners will spend, on average, about five minutes grading each response, so be concise. Your response needs to be fuller than a basic outline, but shorter than War and Peace.
It is fine to start your response with a short conclusion, or, believe it or not, a single word issue statement (e.g. Battery, Custody, etc.) will suffice and get you the points for issue identification. The points here are limited so be succinct.
State the rule clearly and provide the context for the rule in your response. Of course, the lion’s share of the points will come from your analysis, but if your rules are wrong, you are going to struggle to get the points. To be brief, it’s fine to list elements and factors using numbers or bullets. It’s also acceptable to underline the rule statements to bring attention to them for the grader. Finally, abbreviations are okay, but be careful. If it’s not commonly used (e.g. K for contract) the bar examiner may not know what you’re talking about without a parenthetical definition.
It can be an effective trick to signal that you are beginning your analysis. Start with “Here…” or “In this case…” to make it abundantly clear. This is a great way to announce where you are at in the process. Use the rules listed in the rule section as a checklist and to make sure that you are using facts from the fact pattern in your analysis. In a sense, it’s like what your grade school teachers always told you, “show your steps.” Using transition words will also help the grader follow along. Finally, it is a good idea to provide counter-arguments to show that your knowledge and mastery of the rules is comprehensive. Analysis is where you maximize the bang for your buck!
Start your conclusion with the word “therefore” or “in conclusion” to make sure the grader knows exactly where they are in the response journey. It is okay to say something is “likely” or “unlikely,” but it’s not okay to add random facts or rules in the conclusion. Like everything else, keep your response short and sweet.
Remember who you are writing for and how they will consume your response and write accordingly. Long paragraphs are hard to read, so keep it short and use headings. Don’t be overly conclusory; your job is to explain, explain, explain. Absolutely don’t write words like “I think,” “I believe,” or use personal pronouns. Be a legal analysis machine. You got this!