If you’re currently in your last year of law school, you’re probably taking the bar exam in just a few short months. As you finish up finals and wait for whichever bar review program you’ve chosen to begin, you may find yourself unfamiliar with the mechanics of the exam itself and unsure of the terminology that’s being thrown around (MBE, PT … what are those?). In this post, we will do a brief walk-through of the California bar exam for all of you newcomers and answer student questions that may sound familiar to you.
Bar Exam Basics
First thing’s first: the California bar takes three days and tests 13 subjects: Business Associations, Civil Procedure, Community Property, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Professional Responsibility, Real Property, Remedies, Torts, Trusts and Wills, and Succession.
These three days are back-to-back and fall on the last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the exam month — either July or February, depending on when you take the test. Each day of the exam includes a morning session, followed by a lunch break, and then an afternoon session. Thus, there are effectively six 3-hour blocks of time when you will actually be sitting in your chair taking the exam. Days one and three (Tuesday and Thursday) look the same as each other in that the morning session covers essays and the afternoon sessions are dedicated to performance tests, or what are usually called PTs. The middle day (Wednesday) is purely for the multiple-choice component of the exam. These multiple choice questions are called MBE (Multistate Bar Exam) questions.
Bar Exam Components
Alright, let’s delve further into each of these main exam components. As I mentioned, on days one and three, you will start in the morning with essays. There are three essays administered in each of those two morning sessions—so in total, you will be writing out six essays by the end of the three days. Essays can test on one subject, or they might cover more than one. Essays that test on more than one subject are commonly referred to as “crossover essays.” For example, you could have a purely Contracts essay, or you may have a Contracts and Real Property crossover essay that tests both areas of law.
Any essay could potentially be on any one or more of the thirteen subjects above, but subjects typically aren’t repeated in the same exam administration. What this means is that if you see, for example, Contracts, Evidence and a Real Property as your three essay topics on day one, you most likely will not see these topics again in the essays on day three. They will, however, still come up on the MBEs (see below).
The essay portions of the exam are administered in 3-hour blocks. At the beginning of the three hours, you are given three fact patterns, labeled Question 1, 2 and 3 on day one and then Question 4, 5, and 6 on day three. Each essay prompt fills up roughly half a page to one full page and usually consists of a fact pattern followed by an interrogatory, or the “call of the question.” You will also be given plain, unlined scratch paper to help you plan your essay answers.
It is completely up to you what you do to answer these three essay prompts within the three hours. You can read all the fact patterns and then write each essay one-by-one. You can read then write, then repeat. You can write your answers in order or out-of-order. The only time limit you have is the end of the three hour session. However, most bar review programs will recommend that you split your time equally into three one-hour blocks and spend about 60 minutes per essay.
The performance test part of the exam (the PT) is in the afternoon sessions on the essay days. There will be two PTs total, which are labeled PT A and PT B. PT A is on day one and PT B occurs on day three. PTs are very different than essays. For each PT, you are basically taking the packet they give you and writing some kind of assignment—the packet and the assignments are different every time. The PTs are also “closed universe,” which means you don’t actually need to memorize law for the PT. The materials you get, often called the “PT packet” consists of a few standard parts. There is the “file,” the “library,” and a “task memo.”
The “file” is usually factual in nature. You can think of it as a set of documents based on some client looking for legal advice. For example, if your PT is about Johnny, who is initiating a product liability suit against a firearm seller, your “file” for that exam might contain things like notes from Johnny’s visit to your office when he met with another attorney. There might be a transcript from a deposition with the firearm dealer. You may also have various gun licenses and sales receipts or a letter from the president of the handgun company. In other words, the file usually tells some group or person’s story—the problem they need legal help to solve. You can look at the file as the information a person would bring in as a first-time client if they plopped down in your office with a file folder full of papers or the folder pf fact-based information your boss would give you when assigning you the project.
The “library” on the other hand is centered on the law. You might see cases, statutes, or other legal authorities. You can think of the library as the law you might have looked up if the hypothetical client described above came to you for legal help. Again, remember, you don’t actually need to know any of this law. Oftentimes, the law in the “library” portion of the PT is actually fake law or based loosely on real cases, but without actually using their real holdings—so as not to give anyone an advantage. Just like the file, the material in the library can be entirely made up just for the purpose of testing your skill.
The “task memo” isn’t actually labeled “task memo” the way the library and file are labeled. Instead, it will usually just consist of a couple of pages toward the beginning of the packet (sometimes there is even more than one memo document). It will typically tell you some kind of guidelines for answering the closed-universe question being asked. It might give you tips on how to write the sort of assignment you are being asked to complete. It might say something like “Johnny suffered severe burns and a bullet wound to the side when one of the five handguns he bought malfunctioned. He has come to our firm for advice. Please write him an objective opinion letter explaining his options.” This is of course, very simplified, but you get the idea. Your job with the PT is to write whatever type of assignment you get. Either objective or persuasive memos, opinion or advice letters, and legal briefs are all common assignments. However, some exams have asked the exam takers to write closing arguments, opening statements, interrogatories, and other less common tasks. You could get any number of possible assignments.
Each PT takes three hours to administer. As with the essays, you have the full three hours to do whatever you want in whichever order. You will need to read the entire packet, which is usually long and may take quite a bit of time. You will also need to spend time writing out your answer. You can divide up your time however you want, and different bar review programs suggest various methods for how to split your time.
On the middle day, the Wednesday, you have the MBE all day. The day is broken into two sessions, the morning and afternoon—each session contains 100 MBEs, so you will do 200 total questions that day. Unlike the essays where all thirteen subjects are all potentially up-for-grabs, the MBEs only focus on MBE subjects. These include: Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, Torts, and Civil Procedure. Therefore, you could, hypothetically get an essay on an MBE subject (such as Contracts), but you won’t get any MBE questions on a purely essay subject (like Community Property).
Bar Exam Logistics
When you actually take the bar exam, there are some other logistics to think about that you might hear classmates and fellow-exam-takers discussing. Many students reserve hotel rooms or other accommodations for the three days of the exam — sometimes longer if they want to study for a couple of days in the exam location ahead of time.
Some students take the exam in a different city than where they live, some sit for the exam in their home town and go home at the end of each day, and others fly in from out of state just for the test. It’s important to think about where you will be staying, what to bring, and what you will eat on your lunch breaks. Remember that whichever location you test at will be swarming with nervous, anxious exam takers — lines will be long, and quiet spaces may be limited.
Also, since this is an entirely closed-book exam, the list of materials you can bring can vary year-by-year and is usually extremely strict, so it’s good to plan ahead for this as well (I strongly recommend ear plugs!). Don’t worry, you will be getting an admissions ticket that you must bring to the test with you, and it will be accompanied by a list of allowable and prohibited items.
A lot goes into studying for the bar, but oftentimes, bar review courses and programs hit the deck running and don’t do a lot of background explanation. Hopefully, now you know a little more about what to expect on your game day. Best of luck choosing your review course or tutor and studying for your exam!
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