Congratulations! Law school is over and the academic part of your life is behind you. Well, not so fast. There is still the small matter of the bar exam. Make no mistake, the bar is in some ways an extension of law school. You need to study, and you have to take the most important Pass/Fail exam of your life.
But, unlike your graduation party, the bar exam is not all about you. There is someone else involved. After you finish the exam you don’t get to learn the lawyer’s secret handshake until a nameless bar examiner reads your essays and determines if you’re ready to be admitted. They may be nameless, but they are real people with deadlines, responsibilities and the need to relax. With your immediate future in that person’s hands, it’s worth looking at the process from his/her point of view and do what you can to make their life easier so they want to give you a high grade. You were taught in legal writing that you need to know your audience (client, judge, adversary, law professor) and conform your writing to their needs and expectations. The bar exam is no different.
Many graders are practicing attorneys who are reading your essays at night or on the weekends. They are paid by the amount of essays they grade. Add that all up and what do you get? A grader who is not going to spend a significant amount of time reading each essay. Knowing that about your audience, what you need to do is clear – make their life easier.
Your grader is almost certainly going to skim your essay rather than pour over every word as your legal writing professor did. Many graders are only going to spend a few minutes reviewing the essay you spent 45 excruciating minutes writing. So what to do?
1. Structure your Essay in the Format which your Grader Expects
You need to formulate your essays in IRAC form (Issue; Rule; Analysis/application; and Conclusion), because that is what the bar graders want and are used to seeing. Issue spotting is a key component to your exam score. Once you spot the issues, present them clearly and concisely. Underline the issues or put them in bold type or capital letters so they can’t be missed and the grader does not need to search for them. That will make the grader’s life easier. After each issue set forth the rules of law that are applicable. Don’t list three issues and then three sets of rules. Finish Issue 1 before you delve into Issue 2 in detail.
It is important that you not only have as much correct and relevant information as possible, but that the critical information be where it belongs and easy to find. It goes without saying that in any legal writing there is information which must be included in order to have the memo, brief, letter, etc. fulfill its purpose. But when the reader expects to find that information early in the document, and it doesn’t appear until the end, the reader often formulates a negative impression of the document as they’re reading it. And you know what they say about first impressions. When a bar grader comes to assume that certain information is not going to be included because it wasn’t where it belonged, he/she has already determined that the essay is not as strong as it could be and they may not see the important language towards the end of the essay they are skimming.
2. Limit your Essay to Relevant Material
If, after reading the essay question, you realize it calls for a discussion of an area of the law which is not one of your strengths, what do you do? Write what you know on the topic being tested, but only on that topic and the specific points it covers. Don’t waste the grader’s time and cause them undue frustration by making your essay “look better” with longer with irrelevant language which is at best tangentially related to the question. Remember, the grader is not reading every word and wants to do a good job reviewing your essay and move on to the next one. By including useless filler in your essay all you are accomplishing is burying the relevant information you provided and increasing the chances that the passages which would score points for you will be overlooked. Further, reading fluff only frustrates the grader.
3. Use Buzzwords and Terms of Art
Another tool for providing the information which will make the grader want to give you an excellent score is to use the language you learned in law school. It is quicker, more concise and sounds more professional to refer to the standard for summary judgment as demonstrating that there is no genuine issue of material fact, rather than writing that the moving party has to prove that based on all of the evidence gathered in discovery there is no possible way that a jury could find for the nonmoving party at the end of a trial. A term of art has a specific meaning that the grader will immediately appreciate, while longer passages presented in laymen’s terms are less professional and are not an efficient use of your time or of the grader’s time. A person skimming an essay will find it to be of better quality if it contains legal terms.
So, remember your audience and appreciate the difficulties they face in grading numerous essays in response to the same question. Boredom and frustration are the grader’s enemies. Protect them, and you will impress and delight them. An essay that a grader finds a pleasure to read is more likely to result in the awarding of significantly more points than an essay that proves to be a chore to work through.