Prioritizing Rules to Know on the Bar Exam (and How to Dominate the Essays)

Ever wonder how you’re supposed to juggle everything in your head? How do you prioritize the rules to know for the bar exam?

If you’re a bar taker, that’s CONSTANTLY on your mind. There are just so many rules to know.

You’d love to start practicing essays 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 tackle the massive body of rules to know?

Key takeaways:

  • Learn not just the rules but also how to present and organize 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

Before getting into how to prioritize the rules for the bar exam, I need to emphasize something else first.

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

That’s why gaining experience and intuition through writing essays is so helpful. You won’t be too surprised or lost on what to write about during the exam.

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.

But graders don’t care about what you have to say.

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

You have thousands of the same shitty essays to sift through. You have to try to be consistent across all those essays. You try your best at your thankless job, and all they do is complain about your “subjectivity.” People hate you.

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. Everything is blurring together.

You sigh at the pile of essay answers that waits for you every day. Perhaps it’s time to cut corners. Maybe just look for the headings and scan the rest.

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

This becomes a fairly mechanical process once you get through several similar issue patterns. Like fact patterns, there are corresponding issue patterns.

1) Don’t write like a lawyer. Write like a bar taker.

Prior law experience or creative writing will detract from answering the way graders want you to.

How do you write the way the graders want to see? Write like a bar taker instead:

Make the issues loud and clear. Punch the grader in the eyes by creating clear 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 (rule statements):

How to organize issues for bar essays
Courtesy of BarEssays (supplement for California essay prep)

In fact, being able to identify (or “spot”) and organize the issues is at least as important as knowing the rules. (Here’s how to make issue identification a systematic process.)

It’s not about long-winded analyses or writing beautiful rule statements (neither got me to pass the first time).

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 and application will naturally cascade down from the issues like a waterfall. Yes, you still want the meat of it relatively properly written.

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

2) Organize the issues.

There is a certain logic and order to how you approach each issue.

Example of how to organize a call of the question in an Evidence essay:

Issue outline - Evidence

You can even start to notice common issues that clump together (that you should discuss to get as many points as possible):

Common issue clumps

Here’s one for a Civil Procedure essay. Just plug and play the rules:

Issue outline - Civil Procedure 2004 Feb

This is like 75% of the essay, so don’t freak out if it looks like a lot. But it’s a lot more structured than trying to start by typing a mess of words, right?

The best part: These issues clumps repeat! There are issue patterns like I said above. So if you see another SMJ or PJ question, just plug and play the same thing as here.

Outlining the issues and filling in the blanks should become a BORING process because you will have seen the patterns so many times. Success is boring, not sexy.

If you have issues outlined like this, you’re pretty much home free. Do this for every essay, and you’ll know how to solve similar essays that appear on the bar exam.

Or you could remove the guesswork and just memorize issue outlines that have been solved for you already (like the above), cutting your study time dramatically and becoming confident that you’ll dominate the essays.

I’m working on all of the California essays going back to 2001.

Get on the waitlist to be a pilot tester for these issue outlines (for California bar takers only, currently open as of Sept 14, 2021).

Prioritize memorizing the rules and issues in this order…

Of course, 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 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.

Don’t forget to get on the waitlist for the issue outlines (for California bar takers only).

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