The Multi-State Bar Exam, or MBE for short, is often the most dreaded portion of the bar exam. As law students and lawyers, we’re comfortable handling the ambiguities in drafting an extended analysis and pointing out every counterargument. But with multiple choice, we don’t get to make a case to the bar examiners why our answer is correct. We simply have to pick the one and only correct choice.
To pass, you need to select that correct choice between 131 and 135 times. In other words, out of the total 200 MBE questions you’ll encounter, you need to get between 58 and 62% of those questions right. While we never aimed for a D- in law school, that’s what we’re striving for on the MBE.
Fortunately, there are tactics you can employ to tackle the feared MBE questions regardless of where you are in your bar studies. We discuss those tactics in detail here.
The Fundamentals: IRAC Each MBE Question
You probably thought the essays were the only portion of the bar exam where you’d have to employ IRAC—Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion—but you should be using that same approach on every MBE question you tackle.
Just like when you go to do a short answer question, you employ the same method with an MBE question. First, identify the issue in the question. Often, the call of the question, including the sentence right above the call of the question, will tell you immediately what issue you’re dealing with. When that’s not the case, start by narrowing down on which of the seven questions the topic is asking about: Civil Procedure, Contracts, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Evidence, Real Property, or Torts. From there, look at the question to identify the legally significant facts that would trigger a given issue.
After you’ve identified the issue in the question, your next step is pinpointing the operative rule. The operative rule may actually require you to combine a number of different rules, and often will include an exception to a rule. Because of that, make sure you’re being as specific as possible when thinking about the applicable rule or rules. You can also think about this way: the bar examiners have a big book of legal rules for each topic that they need to test you on. They think about a rule they want to test, then put a fact pattern around it. Your job is to sift through those facts to identify the rule the bar examiners had in mind when drafting the question.
Now that you’ve identified the issue and rule, the next step is to apply the rule to the facts. In some topics, like ownership in Real Property or contract formation in Contracts, applying the rule is the most difficult task. Apply the rules methodically. Parse out each sentence of the fact pattern, and make sure that you’ve accounted for each legally significant fact in your rule application.
Finally, and crucially, make sure that you draw a conclusion prior to going to the answer choices. Your conclusion should be just like one you would draw at the end of an essay: it should answer the call of the question and explain why that answer is correct. No conclusion is complete without tying in the legally significant facts and the rule. Reaching a conclusion based on your methodical application of the rule to the facts prevents you from being distracted by the second-best answer choice.
To recap, make sure that you are consistently using IRAC for every single MBE question that you do. To remind yourself to use IRAC, it’s helpful to use a sheet of scratch paper and write out shorthand notes for each.
Troubleshooting Your Missed MBE Questions with the IRAC Approach
Using IRAC will not only help you answer more questions correctly each time tackle an MBE set, but it will also allow you to effectively troubleshoot those questions that you missed. Depending on where you went wrong in the IRAC process, your takeaway will differ.
When you missed the question because of issue spotting, you need to circle back to your issue spotting outline. Don’t have an issue spotting outline yet? It’s time to make one. An issue spotting outline is a short document—one to two pages—that gives an overview of the issues you could encounter in a given topic. You can think of your issue spotting outline as an overarching framework for the material. If the issue you missed isn’t on your outline, consider adding it. In addition, circle back to your longer outline and make a note of the legally significant facts that trigger that given issue.
If you missed the question because you didn’t know the rule, it’s time for memorization. I recommend making a flashcard for the rule that you missed and reviewing those flashcards before completing a new MBE set in that given topic area.
Next, if you find that your problem as applying the rule to the facts, use the fact pattern from the answer question to create an example as to how the rule actually applies. Update your outline with that example so that you have a concrete illustration of how that rule operates in practice.
Finally, make sure that you actually drew a conclusion prior to going to the answer choices! After applying the rule, it’s easy to skip the last step and jump right to the answers. Don’t. Take a moment to think about a conclusion that not only answers the call of the question, but also completes that answer with the key language from the rule coupled with the legally significant facts.
The MBE can be a daunting part of bar prep, but with a few tools—like using IRAC consistently on each question—you can excel on that section of the bar exam come exam day.