Three keys to success on bar exam essays

By Mike Sims,
President of BARBRI

Essay writing is the only skill required on every bar exam in the United States. More importantly, it’s one that many bar takers fail to adequately practice because they assume (often wrongly) that if they were able to successfully write law school exam essays they should be able to successfully write bar exam essays.

The truth is bar exam essays are very different than law school essays, and bar examiners are different than your law professors.

First of all, the vast majority of bar examiners are practitioners, not professors. Since they are used to reading memos or briefs, not lengthy final exams, you’ll want to make sure your writing is clear and concise and that it demonstrates these three key competencies:

Substantive Legal Knowledge

The examiners want to make sure you know the area of law involved in the question and the specific rules that are relevant under the facts. The key word here is relevant. The bar exam tests your ability to answer the question asked, not to memorize a vast quantity of law. In most cases spouting irrelevant law will not get you any points, and in some cases it can actually cost you points.

Analytical Ability

You must show the grader that you know what to do with the facts. In other words, you have show how the facts, when applied to your rule support your conclusion. This is the number one reason that people fail the essay portion of the bar exam, and in a state like Ohio where the essays are 2/3 of the score it is the number one reason people fail the bar exam.

Effective Communication

Imagine you are a bar examiner. You have over 1,000 essays to grade and all you want to do is finish. What makes it easier to finish? Effective communication. You’ll want to minimize spelling errors and avoid grammatical errors, both of which distract the grader. Most importantly, you’ll want to take the time to outline and organize. A short, well organized, clearly written answer beats a long, rambling wreck of an answer every single time.

Bar exam essay writing is a skill that can be mastered through practice and focus on these three key areas.