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Studying for the Essay Portion of the Bar Exam
Deconstruct Exam Questions

De-constructing an answer is different from just reading a question and reading the model answer. Generally, your focus when reading a question is to determine what is required of you to answer it. You are concerned with the information relevant to your task – evaluating whether the defendant committed felony murder, whether the statement was admissible, whether a contract was formed, etc. But when you are studying and trying to learn from the questions, your purpose in de-constructing a question is to analyze its organization and content for patterns and consistencies. This is what you will see if you do this:

How different areas of law are combined in a single essay [the combination relevant for this semester is criminal law with criminal procedure or evidence or any combination of the two].

Civil procedure: in some essays, this topic may present as its own question, but procedure issues are more likely to be integrated with substantive ones.

How procedural issues are combined with substantive issues.

“Party A moved to dismiss B’s complaint…”

“Party A moved to dismiss B’s complaint as to him for failure to state a cause of action and the court…”

How issues are framed and presented in the facts. The more essays you read and de-construct, the more familiar you will become with seeing causes of action in the context of the facts in which they arise.

How bar examiners use vocabulary to signal issues (adverbs and adjectives). Bar examiners are incredibly efficient at using a single word or short phrase to convey enormous meaning. Only careful reading of essay questions – lots and lots of essay questions – will allow you to recognize key words and phrases. It’s not that the words are unusual or buried in the text, but they are easy to overlook in the heat of the exam unless you know how to look for them.

EXAMPLE: Consider a Criminal Law problem where you’re told the plaintiff was “walking peacefully” or the defendant acted “without provocation or warning.” You’ll know that a claim of self-defense is not viable because it is not grounded in the facts.

How bar examiners use vocabulary to identify non-issues. For example, if you’re told that the jury believed something the defendant said – it’s a nonissue – it’s already accepted by the facts.

How topics tend to repeat. Working through past exams lets you see how often particular topics are tested.

De-construct sample answers

Here, rather than studying from past exams to see what YOU can expect from the bar examiners, your goal here is to learn what THEY expect from you. By examining sample answers, you will learn the following:

How important a statement of the issue is to the development of the answer.

How much rule you need to write to address the issue.

How complete and concise statement of the rule differs from a treatise-like discussion.

How to incorporate “distinctions” into your statements of the rule, both state and federal, and statutory and common law.

How analysis of the facts differs from a recitation of the facts.

There may not always be a “right answer.” You will find answers that reach opposite conclusions. This is proof that it’s the reasoning that counts and not the bottom line conclusion.


This article is Part Three  of a Six-Part series. Here is where you can find Part OnePart TwoPart Four,  Part Five, and Part Six.

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