A big complaint about essays: “Essays are so freaking subjective!”
Sure, the MBE is more “objective.” There’s only one right answer on the MBE.
But it depends on your interpretation of the question, the hypo, and most important, the answer choices. Yes because X? Yes because Y? Where’s the option for “yes because Z”? FML!
That’s a question for another day.
Let’s use the subjectivity of essays to your advantage. We’re going to take advantage of the impatience of a human who has thousands of shitty essays to read.
This is great because if you know how to write better on one, you know how to write better on all of them. How many points is that worth to you?
Either way, it’s tempting to shy away from the essays. Essays force you to work your “origination muscle.” You have to come up with words instead of letters to fill in.
Is that a symptom of the age of social media? Most of our activity is scrolling through endless feeds, reading snippets, and divvying up upvotes and downvotes. There’s so much to consume.
Consuming. That’s all we have the patience for. We rarely create something that is ours.
The graders who will read your essays will be consuming and JUDGING. They are modern-day humans.
“Whoa, wait, they’re not lizard people who landed on Earth to ruin my life?” That’s right, friend. How are you going to make them see your worth?
Our job is to create. Learn the pain of creating something.
Let’s work your origination muscle now so that you’re not lifting heavy on exam day.
Well, which parts should you work on? There are three key parts to writing essays:
- Knowledge of issues
- Knowledge of rules
- Making it understandable
Most of us focus on the second part. Yes, that is important. But if you try to answer an essay question with just knowledge of rules… you’ll find yourself torturing the rules to try to make them fit somewhere, anywhere.
No need to belabor this point again. Let’s address the other two parts…
KNOWLEDGE OF ISSUES
The bar exam actually only tests you within a finite universe of issues and rules. So it would benefit you to be aware of what those issues and sub-issues are (nuances, exceptions, defenses, etc.).
Superb. Save that link, and apply it to your essays.
MAKING IT UNDERSTANDABLE
We went to law school because we’re at least somewhat good writers. (Right? If you’re going to joke about how you suck at math, you’d better have something else going on for you.)
God, “writer” makes me sound like some kind of unemployed Starbucks dweller.
The more I think about this, though, the more important writing skill seems to be on the bar essays. It’s not something to ignore. But you can get better.
I’m not talking about “writing like a lawyer.” I’m not talking about creative writing or knowing big words. A great way to make your writing “better” in the context of the bar exam would be to make it easier to understand.
The easier something is to understand, the more compelling it will be to the reader. To go further, the easier you are to understand, the more intelligent someone will think you are (source). Conversely, the more complicated you sound, the less intelligent someone will think you are (source, PDF).
Plain English for Lawyers is moderately suitable for assisting the reduction of verbiage in your prose… Come on, you knew that one was coming. Click the link, read the description, and come back here.
Bottom line, make your writing easy to read. If it’s hard to read, it’s not going to be easy to grade. Give the graders as many reasons to give you points as possible.
If this is too obvious and common sense to you, forgive me.
But there are people who are stuck and wondering why their essays are not doing as well as they want even though they are hitting the rules and falling in love with characters named P and D.
“They should like me for who I am!”
No, they like you for who they perceive you to be. In this case, be someone who writes clearly so that they can give you the points and move onto the next paper. Get in, get the points, and get out.
Here are some suggestions that bar takers could use to improve the clarity of their bar essays:
Good lord, please, no huge walls of text: Break it up into paragraphs like you learned in 5th grade. Don’t kid yourself into thinking anyone (let alone an underpaid grader) is going to read a page with no paragraph breaks. You’re barely hanging onto this article yourself.
To build off the above, separate the R and A. Good time to use paragraph breaks. I often see rule and application commingled or written out of order… which isn’t wrong in itself, but we want to make this easier for the grader. It’s going to be formulaic: Issue heading-R-A-C. Sometimes, the “A” includes multiple smaller IRACs: I-R-[ira-ira-ira]-C.
I repeat: It’s going to be formulaic. Put away your framed creative writing certificate because it means jack shit here.
Each issue and sub-issue should follow a formulaic (not free form) pattern. Write like a bar taker. Don’t write like a lawyer.
And don’t write like this:
The bar is a different beast from law school. It’s graded differently. It’s graded on different expectations. It’s graded by different people. Specifically, bar essays are graded by underemployed graders who are incentivized to read them as fast as possible.
Be liberal with headings. These are street signs that will take the grader through your issues, sub-issues, elements, exceptions, and defenses. Each of these should have some sort of formatting like bold or underline. Something to punch their eyes with because that’s what they’ll focus on.
Guide the grader with headings! If it’s difficult to grade, it’s difficult to score high.
Transition words help take a reader through your reasoning: here, in this case, in other words, more specifically, that is, therefore, hence, thus, in addition, furthermore, rather, according to, etc. BTW, “because” is my favorite connecting word because it can be psychologically persuasive. Use it in your analysis.
Punctuation is helpful! Avoid exclamation marks in an essay unless you’re quoting someone from the hypo.
And as alluded to above, don’t sound like a thesaurus. I’m not saying to keep the answer itself short if you have more to talk about. Instead, write with enough complexity as is appropriate, but don’t go overboard. Simple sentence structures. Assume your grader understands at a 5th-grade level. The grader might read your essay while waiting for the light to turn green or sitting on the toilet (true stories).
(BTW, I aim to keep all my emails and blog articles at
If this is common sense to you, keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise…
We can boil it down to this:
Don’t just dump a stream of words at the graders in a bar essay. Use good presentation to make it as easy as possible for them (the “client”) to consume. In one sense, the bar exam may be a test of empathy.
Remember that people like you for how you present yourself, not for who you are.
If you want to improve your essays on the bar exam, good writing may be more important than you think. But it doesn’t have to be a big ordeal. It could be as simple as reserving a few minutes at the end of a session to double check that your answers read well. One person told me she literally writes “IRAC” on top of her paper. Do whatever works for you.
That’s how you take advantage of the subjectivity of essays—by remembering that you’re writing for a person on the other end.