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Outlining the Essay Writing Approach

While substantive law and the essay format differs between jurisdictions, what does not differ is what the bar examiners are looking for when grading an essay. The process outlined below will allow you to prepare successfully for a bar exam in any jurisdiction, including all UBE jurisdictions.

Always keep in mind that exam writing is a dialogue with the reader. Here, the bar examiner begins the conversation with the question. Your role is to segue to the answer and continue the conversation.

Know your audience:

You must know your audience to write for your audience. Bar exam graders read a large number of essays and evaluate them according to strict criteria. They know what they are looking for and the easier you make it for them to find it, the more points you will accrue. Generally, you can count on writing clear, concise, and focused exam answers which conform to the basic structure of legal analysis.

Practice Essays:

Review released essays from your state’s bar examiners. Released exams should be your primary source for practice essays. While your bar review course includes a good number of simulated practice tests and essay writing exercises, there is no substitute for the real thing.

Know what is tested and how:

Look at the composition of exams in your jurisdiction and subject coverage. You will always want to check for the following:

The components of the exam: Know the mix of the elements and the weight accorded to each.

The number of essays: Know how many questions you can expect. The number of essays determines your timing. Also knowing what you’ll see on the bar exam lets you practice answering questions of similar length and complexity.

Timing: You have approximately 30 minutes to answer each essay question on the bar exam. Taking law school exams should have taught you that questions answerable in 30 minutes are different from questions to be answered in an hour. Shorter questions typically only involve one area of law and are more focused; longer questions combine areas of law and present more issues, thus requiring greater organization on your part.

Subject coverage: You must know the law to write the law and the first step is to identify what you need to know.

Form of questions: Each jurisdiction has its own distinctive essay style (unless it adopts the MEE). Some will lead you to the issues they want you to discuss and others will leave it open and require you to “issue-spot.” Some include both styles in the course of the exam, but not in a single essay. Thorough preparation will let you know what to expect.

Bar exam essays conform to one of two general styles:

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Single issue – outcome specific: these tend to be structured, focused, and narrow – quite unlike the long, issue-laden narratives you’ve seen on law school exams. If you’ve not had experience answering this type of question, you’ll need to practice.

Example: “Was the court correct in granting the motion for summary judgment/for the injunction/to admit the testimony?”

This type of question requires that you NOT raise opposing arguments. While typically law school exams are structured for you to see and argue both sides of an issue, this is not the case here. You are required to reach a conclusion and argue specifically for that result. Any time you spend identifying potential counterarguments is a waste of your time and a loss of potential points.

Multi-issue-focused response: these questions are harder to characterize since they seem open-ended and conclude with such familiar interrogatories as “discuss the rights and abilities of all parties” or “analyze fully.” Even these general questions are unlike typical law school exams in that the bar questions are focused and limited in the actual number of issues tested in a single essay.

Your challenge here lies in your ability to cover the relevant level of detail without going astray. Once again, organizing your answer around the issue and sub-issues is a key to a focused, concise answer.

For example, MEE questions typically ask you to “explain” your answer to a specific question but the “explanation” required is not an extensive dissertation of the law but a concise and succinct discussion of relevant legal principles as they relate to the issues presented by the question.

Example: “On what basis, if any, can the injured persons hold Transport liable for tort claims resulting from the Hot Trucks accident? Explain.”

While the call-of-the-question contains the usual language indicating an open-ended inquiry, you can’t be deceived into a general listing of possible causes of action. Write a targeted, focused analysis required by the facts of the problem.

Only practice with reading and writing such questions that would allow you to proceed to the relevant discussion.

You must answer the question asked and ONLY the question asked. In some jurisdictions, the bar examiners will ask you to come to a conclusion. What’s critical when you’re asked to provide a conclusion is that you take a position and argue it. Unlike typical law school exams, here you are not supposed to argue in the alternative and present both points of view. In conclusion-based jurisdictions, you’re supposed to be an advocate and demonstrate how you marshal the facts to the law.


This article is  Part Two of a Six-Part series. Here is where you can find Part One, Part ThreePart Four,  Part Five, and Part Six.

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