Bar Exam Success Commandment 3: How to Exploit Scarcity (and Improve Your Bar Essays)

We like to tell people we “don’t have time” or that “time is the most valuable resource” or that “life is short” (even though we love to procrastinate). But I think we do have a lot of time at our disposal. We just choose to squander a lot of it, too.

Then what’s the true scarcity of this world? What is the one thing that’s radically limited and expires very quickly?

Money? Time? Milk?

I think there’s something even more scarce: human attention.

Read on to see how you can use this scarcity principle to give yourself an edge on the written portions of the bar exam.

On the written portions: Signal your competence. Make it obvious for the grader.

In contrast to the MBE, knowing what the right answer to the subjective portions like essays and performance tests is not as straightforward. You could cram the law and practice writing them out all day and still see little improvement (unless you self-critique, not just do the essay).

The good news is that there are ways you can take advantage of this subjectivity. Make the psychological, human element work in your favor, and lift all your essays up. These are ways that require minimal effort. Negligible risk for potential rewards is what this is about.

Consider this: If you don’t indicate in your answer that you know what’s going on in an essay hypo, the grader will take a look your wall of text and see few reasons to give you points. Even if you have amazing analysis to offer somewhere in your answer or in your head, why would the grader care if you don’t demonstrate it? If your score is based on what the graders see (and their mood, despite unbiased grading being their job), then it’s up to us to mitigate that risk.

“What?! But she should just like me for who I am! Just b urself!!” Are you sure about that? Are you absolutely sure, user “hotstudmuffin69” with bad pictures and a boring profile that sounds like the other 1,000 guys? Are you “fluent in sarcasm,” too? I want to throw millennials back where we found them.

When you’re sitting in the exam hall, it’s not the time to play hard to get. In fact, you should “be arrogant” on the actual bar exam.

Fortunately, signaling your competence can be simple to do in an essay. When we actually go over those signals later, you may find that you already use them and don’t need me to tell you again.

Regardless, knowing the WHY behind the signals will make you more likely to actually use them under pressure or come up with your own variation. Instead of “yeah yeah I know stop nagging me mom,” you’ll be like “the older I get, the more I realize I’m turning into my mom.”

The true scarcity of this world is human attention.

In today’s world, everything seems to compete for fragments of your attention. Contrary to common belief, you can’t just add more attention to your disposal (your performance suffers when you multitask).

What actually happens, as you probably know, is that as you spend your limited attention (focusing on something or resisting temptation) or divide your attention from one thing to another, you get tired and distracted. This is why we talked about building study habits.

You want to relax after a long day of work and let loose once finals are over, right?

Bar graders, on the other hand, are cold-blooded reptilians. Huh, what? This just in…

Bar graders are also human, so their attention is also susceptible to decay as they open repetitive, boring answer booklets one after another in their thankless contractor job.

But they do need to look at your answer at some point, and that’s your one chance. If you want to win this game, take advantage of this small window of attention your grader may feel like giving you.

Let’s go off track for a bit now, but I promise I will tie it into the main point.

Remember the classic turn-networking-into-a-job advice? “Send your ‘mentor’ an article every month!” Forget it. Even if the article is relevant to their work, they likely don’t have the time or patience to read a random article sent as a crutch to stay in touch and get your resume passed around down the line.

If you do, it had better be really good. Otherwise, they can look it up on their own. If you send irrelevant information, you’re making the busy person do extra work of deciding whether to read it, pretending to be thankful out of obligation, or ignoring you (making them feel guilty). Yikes. They don’t need things that don’t inspire gratitude cluttering up their day.

In other words, don’t make other people do the work for you. You can stand out in a world where no one does this. People have dumped on me entire blogs to check out (takeaways, quotes, any specific part you want me to see?), names of people for me to stalk on LinkedIn for them (do it yourself or at least give me a link), or general bar questions that they can find the answer to on my blog. (This also means I need to make the information accessible and clear to my readers, which I continue to work on.)

Find a way to frontload as much work as you can on your side first, whether you’re asking a favor from a friend, asking for thoughts from a mentor, or writing an essay for a grader on the bar exam. What goes around (likely) comes around.

As the person applying for entry to the bar, it’s your job to prove your competence and convince graders to give you points. It’s not realistic for graders to compare the rubric against the answer by reading your paper in gory detail, at least in the time given with the amount they’re getting paid.

Let’s think deeper here and realize the power dynamic going on here: Everyone’s got their problems, but your problem ain’t their problem. Graders ultimately determine whether you waste another six months of your life. They are your “clients”; never piss off decision makers with bad work product or things they can’t understand.

The sooner you understand, at the core, that it’s your responsibility to convey your thoughts clearly, and not the reader’s responsibility to interpret, the better off you’ll be. Think of what you’d tell hotstudmuffin69 to do for a chance at her attention instead of just saying “hi” like half the guys on her match list.

Seriously, evaluating other people’s bar essays is one of the most thankless jobs in existence. Put yourself in their situation… It’s a secret from your parents how you plan to afford rent. You’re reading someone’s shitty essays on the toilet and at stop lights. And you’d rather watch water boil with the heat off because these essays are so goddamn boring and repetitive. A bitter position to be in, indeed. However, we can give them a gift instead.

Those who have no regard for the metagame—who don’t consider the person reading their paper and simply write for themselves—are less likely to get a favorable score.

Fortunately, there are simple ways to let the grader know that you know your stuff (which does require that you actually do know what is being tested). As they form a smile on their face and breathe a sigh of relief, they have no choice but to give you points.

Make your graders happy, and they’ll make you happy.

Now that you have a modest sense of the state of mind your audience (grader) is likely to be in, you’re playing a different game. What are some ways to make it easy on the grader to give you points?


When I’m driving, I appreciate street signs so I know I’m going in the right direction.

Headings are simply statements of legal issue (e.g., “Duty of loyalty” or “Whether L has breached his duty of loyalty”). Consider putting down whatever issue (main issue, sub-issue, nuance, etc.) you see as a heading.

Punch them in the eyes! Each time you use issue headings, you are sending a clear signal of what issue to expect in the forthcoming paragraphs. You may have already noticed that the recent Bar Exam Success posts use headings for your convenience.

Remember, there’s only a finite number of ways to test you, so they already have an idea of what they want to see.

And when people are stressed out about their thankless temp job, what do they look for? Shortcuts.

Headings will make it super easy for them to jump to the next section and find what they’re looking for. They might even skim your essay and give you the benefit of the doubt, assuming that your analysis of facts and recitation of law are proper.


Signaling your competence to the grader is not limited to headings.

You can also lay down clear IRAC—such as not commingling the rule and its application (a common blunder) and instead separating them into their own paragraphs. If the grader doesn’t understand what’s going on, his attention will turn elsewhere.

What doesn’t get understood doesn’t get read doesn’t get graded doesn’t get points!

Of course, this is easier said than done. For now, just know that you want to have a clean, organized structure where it’s clear what the issue, rule(s), application (which may include mini IRACs), and conclusion are by looking at it. Something like this:


Rule rule rule…

“Here,” facts facts facts… logical connection toward conclusion “because” of facts corresponding to rule…

“Thus,” summary of conclusion “because” of key facts.

By the way, “IRAC” is the syllogistic format used in many states to present an argument: State the issue. Recite the rule. Apply (or analyze) the rule to the facts. Conclude. Some states may prefer another format (e.g., CRAC, CIRAC), but it’s essentially the same. If you want to make sure, you can check for this by looking at sample essay answers.

As a side note for the California bar, don’t conclude ahead of time (like the examples below from my first time). And I’m sure you won’t. There’s nothing to gain and everything to lose.


This is just stylistic preference and may not be worth agonizing over. Using different formatting can help even more. As an example, your main issue could be bolded and underlined, each issue under the main issue could be a simple underline, sub-issues could be in italics, etc. If it gets too messy, you can even prefix each with different numbering levels (uppercase Roman, Arabic, letters, lowercase Roman, etc.). Like this:

Using different formatting can help even more. As an example, your main issue could be bolded and underlined, each issue under the main issue could be a simple underline, sub-issues could be in italics, etc. If it gets too messy, you can even prefix each with different numbering levels (uppercase Roman, Arabic, letters, lowercase Roman, etc.). Like this:


A. Assault
[Elements of assault]

i. Reasonable apprehension
[Specific rule statement on apprehension, an element of assault] [Application of the rule statement to relevant facts]

ii. Imminent battery
[Et cetera]

Again, this is up to you and something you can consider if you have time. I did this because I’m a neat freak, and I think it helped me organize my answer on the PTs too (e.g., to analyze each element of a case law). Just don’t get too artistic here because graders would appreciate relatively uniform work product.

[CA only] Update: Actually, the owner at sent me this interesting essay, and I just had to share it with you. Check out what an 85 essay looks like. [This is a superb score in CA.] How uncanny is it that it has everything we just went over? One thing I would change, though, is to separate some of the R and A parts.

You can find more additional writing tactics in Passer’s Playbook 2.0.


Remember, you want to make your paper easy to evaluate. The better they can understand you, the more they’ll think you’re intelligent and likable (and deserving of points).

Accordingly, heed the Third Commandment for success on the bar exam:

When writing for the subjective portions, seize the grader’s attention in your favor with a presentation that signals competence, such as headings that clearly identify each issue, organized structures, and clean formatting.

These relatively effortless steps can become effective signposts for both you and the graders. Make the most of the limited attention and patience they have for you.

Speaking of headings, being able to identify issues and sub-issues is essential.

Some say that California, at least, is a jurisdiction that emphasizes application of the law, which is rather simple once you learn it. (Most other states are less concerned with analysis. Check your state’s sample answers, if available.)

Don’t get me wrong. Rules and their application are important, no doubt. You still need to make sure you’re solid in those areas if you are struggling. But without the seeds of issues, IRACs can’t sprout in the first place.

Put another way, although you can still get partial credit if you make up a rule or shove in facts until your application looks hefty enough, you will get zero credit for an issue that is never raised. To that end, you should focus on how to nail down the issues and fearlessly present them to the grader.

That’s the WHAT. Where’s the HOW?

It’s rather unfortunate that no one really teaches you how to identify issues. “Issue spotting” out of thin air seems like a mystical process that comes with plain guesswork.

Well, it turns out you can systematize this process… And you don’t need to be a “natural” at it. It’s something you can learn.

This leads to the final, Fourth Commandment—exactly how to ensure you don’t omit relevant issues in your essays—discussed in the next post.

This is the third of a four-part series on what I think are fundamental study strategies, whether you’re a first timer or a repeater. They are fundamental in that they are important concepts that I focused on that made a difference in my second attempt, but you can tailor the concepts to your own needs.

Part 0: 3 Options If You Failed the Bar
Part 1: Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?
Part 2: Improve Your MBE Score

Part 4: How to Systematically Identify All the Relevant Issues in a Bar Essay (Without “Issue Spotting”)

Now I’d love to hear your thoughts: How else could you draw the grader’s attention to your competence?


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