Now this may sound kind of silly. At this point in your legal studies you have likely read hundreds of fact patterns. Aren’t you an expert already? I will argue that if you are struggling with the essay portion of the bar exam, you are not.
What is an expert fact pattern reader?
Let’s use the following example from a real California Bar question (July 2010).
While walking home, Don had to pass through a police checkpoint for contraband. Officer Otis patted down Don’s clothing, found a gun, confiscated it, and released Don.
Read these facts very carefully; what issues do you see? Make yourself a list.
Now that you have your list, compare it to my list:
- Validity of the checkpoint
- Validity of the pat down
Now perhaps your list is the same as mine. But I have read a lot of failing answers to the question above and the most common mistake was that students skimmed over a very simple word: “checkpoint.” That single word created a legal issue that needed to be discussed. This wasn’t just a typical pat down. This was done at a checkpoint and there are specific legal standards that must be met for a search to be valid at a checkpoint. When I see students miss such an issue, I ask them why. The most common responses are “I didn’t see the word checkpoint” or, in my opinion even worse, “I didn’t think it was important.”
Let’s take a moment here to stop and pay very close attention.
There are no immaterial facts in a bar question. Bar questions are typically short, carefully written, and vetted before being included in a test. There is very little to no “fluff.” If you see a word like checkpoint, there is a reason for it. It is there to give you something to talk about!
How do I become an expert fact pattern reader?
So what do you do if you aren’t very good at reading facts? You need to experiment with different ways to get better at reading facts. A few exercises you might find helpful:
(1) Make a note of each fact in the fact pattern. As you are reading the question, make a mark next to each fact (a little box or a star). Start to notice how each sentence has at least one important fact in it. When you outline your answer, go back to the question and check off each of the facts you have used. If you have a complete answer, it is likely you have discussed all of them. If you haven’t discussed all of the facts, then ask yourself why the bar examiner included that fact in the question. He was trying to tell you something. Include whatever that is in your outline.
(2) Write your own fact pattern. Another way to fully appreciate how facts relate to an essay answer is to write your own fact pattern based on a set of rules. This puts you in the shoes of the bar examiner. Let’s say you want to have the fictional student talk about the rule for burglary, specifically whether or not a dwelling must be an actual house or can be extended to buildings connected to homes or even office spaces. Perhaps you write a fact pattern where the defendant enters a home office that is located in one’s garage attached to a home. Why a garage and not a house? Because the exam writer wants you to talk about the definition of a dwelling and how strict a legal interpretation the definition is given (for example, can a garage count as a dwelling?). (Note: This fact pattern is from an actual bar question from July 2011.) Writing your own fact patterns is not easy, but it is a great way to test your knowledge of the law and your appreciation of how facts trigger certain legal discussions.
Remember, you won’t get all the possible points if you don’t understand what the bar examiners are asking you. You must become an expert fact reader in order to write a complete exam answer.
Want more useful bar exam advice? Sign up for our free mailing list now!
Check out these other posts you might find helpful:
- You Should Spend Time Studying Sample Answers
- Review of BarEssays.com
- Organize with a Bar Binder
- The Bar Exam Is One Big Interview