Passing the California Bar Exam with the “Tripod Approach”?

A coaching client and I were on the phone discussing strategy for the upcoming California Bar Exam in July.

The good news was that his MBE scores from previous attempts were already on track to pass the bar exam in California. He consistently got scaled scores of over 1440.

(If you’re taking the exam elsewhere, you’re already halfway home free with a good MBE score according to the “tripod approach” I’ll describe in a bit.)

The issue was that he couldn’t consistently score well on the essays. The essays he thought were the best, he’d get a 55 on them. The essays he wrote fewer than 1,000 words and thought were his worst, he’d get a 65 or more.

BY THE WAY: You don’t “pass” the MBE, or an essay, or a performance test. You pass the EXAM with enough total points—all or nothing. I will throw my keyboard out the window and hope it falls on the next person who talks about “passing an essay with a 65.” How does grading work for the CBX? Read.

Given his situation, I suggested a couple of approaches that would focus on a few key areas that would easily bring him over the hump to pass the California bar in July, once things “clicked” for him…

One of these is the basis for the Tripod Approach, which is a minimally effective approach where you focus on a few key portions when preparing for the California Bar Exam to get the largest return.

I asked him to consider these two approaches:

1) The “5-point insight”

This one is pretty simple.

Let’s say you have a deficiency in essay writing. Failing to organize, commingling the rules and application, lack of IRAC structure, itemizing the issues, expressing the rules accurately, etc.

Maybe each one by itself isn’t enough to make or break the essay. But stack these on top of one another, and you’re on your way to an essay no one wants to read.

Let’s say fixing them is worth an extra 5 points. If your grader is trying to get to the next essay ASAP and is on the fence, an easy-to-grade paper could tilt the scales to the next 5-point increment.

Five points don’t seem like a lot, but remember that we’re not trying to get you to write a treatise and score a 90-100. We just want maybe a couple of 70s and a couple of 65s. We want something that’s comfortably above the bare minimum. An average written raw score of 65 should do it, whether you’re taking the two-day General Bar Exam or the one-day Attorneys’ Exam.

More important, if you overcome those deficiencies, if things click and you can figure out how to get 5 extra points on one essay (consistently), you can repeat the process on ALL five essays.

That is to say, a “5-point insight” could be worth 25 extra points!

With the next part, though, you may not even have to capture all 25 extra points.

2) PR + PT

This strategy was inspired by a reader of mine, Perry S.

Professional Responsibility (PR) is a subject that is practically guaranteed to appear as an essay.

(It’s not 100% guaranteed to appear. For instance, it didn’t show up as an essay in 2015 February and 2007 July, although ethics showed up as a theme for the PT-A in both administrations.)

The performance test (PT) is worth 200 out of the 700 raw points for the written portion of the California Bar Exam (or for the entire Attorneys’ Exam). In other words, the PT is worth 2 essays, and you get 1.5x the time allotted. Even though it’s worth 14.3% of your overall score, the points are highly concentrated.

Many bar takers ignore the PT until the last moment (if at all). Or they might rely on their “lawyer-like” writing skills to wing it.

It would behoove you to focus on these two areas: the PR essay and the PT, since we know they will show up on the California bar.

Let’s say we aim for a respectable score of 65-70 on PR and PT. You can then make do with 55-60s on the rest of the essays—assuming you do well enough on the MBE to get a scaled score of at least 1440 (roughly 130 questions correct).

It doesn’t take a great answer to get a 55! Knock the PR and PT out of the park, and you get a homerun.

For the nerds (which you are, don’t deny it), open the below spoiler to see how I derived the above assertion:

Click to expand
  • An overall scaled score of 1440 is needed to pass the California Bar Exam
  • A scaled written score of 1440 puts you on track to pass (assuming you get a 1440 on the MBE as well); this can be more or less depending on how you fare on the MBE
  • An average raw written score of 62.5 equates ROUGHLY and GENERALLY to a 1440 scaled (hence the ~a passing score on an essay is 65~ *vomits*)
  • A minimum raw score of 437.5 is then needed (62.5 x 7)
  • If you score 70 on both PR and PT, you only need 227.5 raw points to be on track to pass (437.5 – 70 – 70 – 70 = 227.5); this is an average of about 57 points for the remaining essays (227.5/4 = 56.875), or two 55s and two 60s
  • If you score 65 on both PR and PT, you need 242.5 raw points to be on track to pass (437.5 – 65 – 65 – 65 = 242.5); this is an average of about 61 points for the remaining essays (242.5/4 = 60.625), or three 60s and one 65
  • Any combination of 65 and 70 on PR and PT puts you between the range enclosed by the above two

Therefore, nailing the PR essay and the PT gives you more leeway and slack on the rest of the essays on the California Bar Exam. Perfect for those who are on the weaker side when it comes to essays.

It’s one way to prioritize your focus. Better than obsessing over predictions at least (and getting mad when they actually leak).

The Tripod Approach to passing the California Bar Exam

The PR + PT approach above assumes you also do well on the MBE, which you should, as it accounts for half your score.

We now have three key components to a minimally effective approach to preparing for the California Bar Exam:

  • MBE: 50% of overall score, and accounts for 3-4 of the subjects tested on the essays
  • PR essay: 1/7 of written score, or about 7% of overall score
  • Performance test: 2/7 of written score, or about 14% of overall score

This three-prong attack that focuses on the MBE, PR, and PT in your bar preparation accounts for over 70% of your overall score just by stabilizing a few key areas that you know will be on the California Bar Exam. Now that’s what I call a big win!

Since you KNOW they will show up, you make sure you stabilize these few key areas and then coast on the rest, while letting everyone else cry about predictions.

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The coaching client I mentioned in the beginning just needs to get the PR and PT down solid (and keep up the MBE), and he is home free. Imagine the relief from making this his last time.

And you can do this, too!

Here’s how to prepare for the California bar with the Tripod Approach:

MBE

Get one or both of these excellent resources:

Most people find the questions on the MBE similar to the ones tested in the past. The past will guide your future. One person told me that he thinks they take old questions and just change the information.

There are only so many ways they can test you! They’re called fact PATTERNS for a reason.

Professional Responsibility Essay

PR is typically an open-ended racehorse essay (“What are L’s ethical obligations?”). focus on identifying as many relevant issues as possible. Punch the grader in the face with clearly identified issues and sub-issues rather than the nuances of the rules.

Performance Test

This is one area where quantity beats quality. You want to get exposed to a variety of PTs and know how to organize them and do them in time.

Common mistakes regarding the PT:

  • Letting the PT be a submarine missile that comes out of nowhere because you ignored it for weeks
  • Not finishing in time (my PT toolkit suggests how to prevent this)

Lastly, you may want to consider doing the PT first in the afternoon session on Tuesday if you want to use your post-break brainpower on it first.


All that said, don’t just blow off the other (CA-specific) subjects! This approach shifts your attention to cover the most predictable areas, but that alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the scores you need.

Leave a comment below to let me know what you think about this proposed Tripod Approach.

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