Dominating the Essays: Organize Issues and Prioritize Rules to Know on the Bar Exam

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

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

How do you know you’ve completed the essay in full? Did you even talk about the correct issues? Are the graders going to give you the points? Are they even going to read your prose?!

You’d love to start practicing essays but feel like you just haven’t learned enough law yet. It’s overwhelming to even begin.

At least the answer is right there in MBE questions… If you’re a bar taker struggling with coming up with what to write, essays are the bane of your existence. Your rambling paragraphs start to blur.

Let’s breathe. We can simplify the essays and make them less scary…

Key takeaways:

  • Issues: Learn not just the rules but also how to present and organize the issues (with examples below)
  • Rules: Highest-priority issues and rules are those that have appeared in the past (there are two other priorities)
  • 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 (I talk about this more in this video)

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

Meanwhile, some bar takers think they have to write a beautiful treatise so that bar graders can put on a monocle, do a deep literary analysis of the romance between P and D, and press it against their chest while looking out the window because your prose tugged at their heart.

The graders couldn’t care less about that LOL

If it helps, think about the time you watched someone slowly lose interest in you while being unable to do anything about it. And how futile texting them your thoughtful walls of text was.

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

You sigh at the pile of essay answers that waits for you every day.

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

You also want to get through these essays as quickly as possible since you’re already getting underpaid. You’re already reading these answers while at the red light or sitting on the toilet. Your life is blurring together.

Perhaps it’s time to cut corners. Maybe just look for the headings and scan for keywords in the analysis…

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.

Practicing attorneys tend to not do as well on bar essays because this is a SEPARATE skill from real practice.

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 applications will naturally cascade down from the issues like a waterfall. Yes, you still want the meat of your answer written well.

Think of it as submitting a resume (or texting a girl). Hit the main points that the reader will care about. 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 routine 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.

OK, so that was about issues. Now about prioritizing rules…

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 and rules that have been tested a lot tend to be tested again. The more they’ve been tested, the more important they are.

Learn the important issues and rules 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 how to use it.

Seeing real problems will be productive because it will reveal what you know and 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 deemed 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. Typically, they’re listed in outlines.

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 didn’t 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 thanks to these gaps in knowledge, I still passed the exam by focusing more on the first two priorities during bar prep than absolutely everything at once.

Take your practicing and memorizing to the next level

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.

Magicsheets condensed outlines 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.

Approsheets issue checklists and flowcharts help you hit all the relevant issues on an essay so you can stop having that “blank screen syndrome.”

It’s a no-brainer if you want to invest in your dreams:

"Your blog, Magicsheets, and Approsheets were the deciding factor in my passing the California bar last year after ditching Barbri.  I am now enjoying my job in Big Law in CA, and can't speak highly enough of you and your product to my friends. ... Your material is much more helpful than any treatise or guide."

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