Learning and Prioritizing Rules to Know for the Bar Exam

Maybe it’s the last two weeks before the bar exam and you just started prepping for it.

Maybe your bar prep course FINALLY let you go off to do your thing and it’s a mess to sift through.

Maybe you have a full-time job and got some time off and everything is riding on this exam.

Whatever the case, you may be left with a bunch of law you don’t know how to actually USE in the exam.

You’d love to start practicing essays and MBE questions but feel like you just haven’t learned enough law yet.

How are you supposed to learn all this when time is tight? How do you prioritize the massive body of rules to know?

Key takeaways:

  • Learn not just the rules but also how to present the issues
  • Highest-priority issues and rules are those that have appeared in the past (there are two other categories)
  • There are efficient and effective ways to hit both of the above at once

Know not just the rules but also the issues

After working with readers and coaching clients over the years, there are two things that have become apparent:

  1. Writing essays on the bar exam is not about writing like a lawyer
  2. Issues are king

Some bar takers think they have to write a beautiful treatise so that bar graders can put on a monocle, do a literary analysis, and press it against their chest after reading something that tugged at their heart.

Let me make something clear: No one cares about what you have to say.

Put yourself in the essay grader’s shoes for a moment…

People hate you already as a grader. You have thousands of the same shitty essays to sift through. You have to try to be consistent across all those essays in a subjective process.

You also want to get through these essays as quickly as possible since you’re already getting underpaid and no one’s going to tip you. You’re already reading these answers while at the red light or sitting on the toilet. The next morning, you start to forget what a good answer is supposed to look like.

You sigh at the pile of essay answers. Perhaps it’s time to skim. Or look for the headings.

So now, as the applicant, what can you do to get the points?

Write like a bar taker:

Make the issues loud and clear. Punch the grader in the eyes by creating headings. Break out the sub-issues and elements into their own “street signs” for the grader.

Here’s an example of a major issue (Contract Formation) and an element (Offer) clearly called out, and their corresponding principles (law):

Courtesy of BarEssays (supplement for California essay prep)

In fact, being able to identify (or “spot”) the issues is at least as important as knowing the rules. Issues are where everything starts. An IRAC can’t sprout (and you get no points) from a seed that’s never planted.

Identifying the relevant issues is a signal to the grader that you understand what’s being tested. Rules will cascade down from the issues. Yes, you still want the meat of it relatively properly written.

Think of it as submitting a resume. You are one out of a pile. It’s a hassle to go through. Better make the most out of the 10-15 seconds of the recruiter’s attention.

More on writing like a bar taker in my guest article on the BarEssays blog (supplement for California essay prep).

Prioritize memorizing the rules and issues in this order…

You still need to know the law corresponding to the issues you identify. But if you need to prioritize, narrow the field of issues and rules in this order:

1. Issues and rules that have appeared in past exams, including main issues, sub-issues, defenses

Issues that have been tested tend to be tested again. The more they’ve been tested, the more likely they’ll show up in the future. The corresponding rules are tested too of course.

Learn these by solving problems from the past and studying the answers.

You don’t need to have “learned enough law yet” before you dive into the pool. Trying to ensure that is exactly how I failed the California Bar Exam my first time.

Knowledge removed from the facts is nothing. It’s all artificial if you don’t know to use it.

Practicing will be productive because it will reveal what you don’t know. It’s like getting on the scale to measure yourself. THEN you can review and fill in the gaps.

The essay and MBE questions you go through now will become familiar fact patterns you might see again on the exam. Practicing and self-critiquing your work help you accomplish everything you seek:

  • Getting better at identifying issues
  • Memorizing and remembering rules through active recall
  • Knowing how to apply the rules you memorized
  • Picking the right answer on the MBE more often
  • Gaining confidence

In other words, practicing will help solidify everything, including understanding and retaining the important concepts likely to be tested. Exciting!

2. Issues and rules you think are important

You may not get through all the past essays, but you may have a feeling that there are issues and rules that would be good to know. Maybe you’ve seen them around somewhere, maybe in law school or mentioned in a bar prep lecture.

You’ll still need to rote memorize these things, unfortunately. MBE questions especially may test you on specific obscure rules.

Note that I continue to mention issues and not just rules. That’s because memorization isn’t just about memorizing rules.

3. Other fringe Issues and rules that might come up (rule against perpetuities, anyone?)

Better to at least get familiar in case they ask you about it.

When I retook the bar exam, there were essay questions I wasn’t sure how to answer because I needed to know about zoning (issues I didn’t know about) and criminal prosecutor ethical duties (rules I didn’t know).

Even though my life flashed before my eyes, I passed the exam by focusing more on the first two priorities during bar prep than absolutely everything.

Take your practicing and memorizing to the next level

You can see how issues rule and rules drool (jk, rules are still very important).

Now you know where to focus on if you’re short on time. If you feel tempted to skip over subjects based on predictions, try this approach instead.

It’s still a lot to learn, though.

If you want to make the material more manageable and less overwhelming, check out Magicsheets and Approsheets.

These condensed outlines and issue checklists/flowcharts contain all three of the above categories of priority—covering 95% of the testable issues and rules in 5% of the space of your bar prep course content.

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