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How to Prepare for the Bar Exam


Students who have decided to sit for a state's bar exam should be commended. There is no question that the exam is quite challenging and the competition is tough. However, the student should keep in mind that he or she could not have made it to this stage of achievement without some exceptional study skills and hard work. This writing suggests a way to approach the massive amount of material that needs to be processed for the exam and the positive attitude that should be carried throughout all of it.

A breakdown of two months into weekly time blocks gives the candidate eight weeks to study six multistate subject areas; contract law, tort law, real property law, criminal law, constitutional law, and evidence and two weeks of state specific areas of law. The bar examiners of the state of testing will select the other areas of law to test for the essay section. For example, New York may test domestic relations, trusts and estates, and /or corporations law. Thus, six weeks devoted to the multistate areas and two weeks devoted to state specific areas of law should suffice.

Probably no one knows better than the candidate what his or her strengths and weaknesses are. However, one way to affirm strengths and weaknesses is by taking a practice multistate exam immediately after the six week review of the multistate material has ended. The candidate may find he or she answered 90% of the real property questions correctly and only 40% of the evidence questions correctly. With two weeks left to study state specific areas of law, the candidate must decide how to best budget study time in terms of subject focus.

Preparing for the Multistate Sections

A review course for this section is recommended for all candidates. The course gives the candidate several practice tests under testing conditions. Since timing is often the biggest pitfall in this section, practice is the way to improve it. Review courses give the candidate this practice time. Another point to consider is that the more familiar one becomes with the test questions and format, the less threatening the questions will appear to be on the day of the test.

It should be noted that when the candidate is too anxious about the timing factor and too concerned with beating the clock, accuracy may be sacrificed. On the other hand, if the candidate is too focused on answering every question correctly, despite the length of time he or she is spending on a particular question, other questions may be left unanswered and forfeited which could have been easily answered correctly. There is a balance of time and accuracy for each individual candidate wherein a score may be optimized. This balance should be determined prior to the exam. Experiment with the time spent on each question and weigh the points forfeited, by leaving the questions unanswered or guessing at them, against the weight of the points gained by the number of questions answered correctly.

Generally, there are 200 questions which have to be answered in two three hour time blocks, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Mathematically, a division of the number of questions into the time allowed leaves just less than two minutes per question. With the pressure of time thwarting one's efforts to analyze carefully, it is too tempting to hastily answer a question and move on to the next hoping the last answer was correct.

To further clarify, a raw score of 120 out of 200 could theoretically mean that the first 120 questions were answered correctly and the last 80 questions unanswered or guessed at incorrectly. Further assume that this is the case because two minutes were allowed for each of the first 120 questions which is more than the suggested time. With 80 questions left unanswered or guessed at, time is called. It is not going to matter whether or not all of the questions were answered when accuracy is forfeited and answering all 200 questions with a cursory read yields the same score of 120/200 correct.

Aside from timing, accurately reading the questions is important for this section. The bar candidate should approach this section with particular attention to the exact question being asked. For example, some questions are looking for the rule of law while others are looking for the exception to the rule of law. It is imperative that the exact question to be answered is determined prior to a response. Law students are only too familiar with the complexity of having a rule of law to apply, which in turn has its exceptions and which exceptions themselves, have exceptions.

Preparing for the Essay Sections

An organized, easy to read answer is the best advice here. A rough outline helps in this regard. As the candidate is reading through the facts, important information should be underlined. Any information that will have a legal effect on the answer should be underlined or starred. Once the fact pattern is carefully read and underlined, a brief, rough outline should be drafted. The main purpose of the outline is for organization, but equally as important here is that all the information starred or underlined in the fact pattern is addressed in the essay. The outline is the place to write the critical points so that these data are not missed or passed over in the written essay.

After analyzing the fact pattern, state all of the issues. Do not miss any! Even if the candidate is not sure whether a particular point is an issue or not, or if he or she is not sure what the rule of law to be applied is, the issue should be written down. The examiners are looking to see whether or not the candidate recognized that the fact is or may be a potential legal problem. The candidate needs to demonstrate to the examiners that he or she was aware of the particular problem. Once the issue is noted, it is time to identify the rule of law to apply.

Here is when the candidate must accurately identify the area of law being tested. Each issue in one essay may be testing a different area of law. For example, an essay may contain three main issues and two ancillary sub-issues. Taking each issue separately, the rule of law to apply should be stated. There is nothing wrong with pointed language such as, "The rule of law to apply to this issue is., however, there is an exception to the law where..." Once the rule and any applicable exceptions are determined both should be applied to the facts of the particular question.

After application of the law to the facts, the candidate is ready to conclude the outcome of the case. The conclusion should be stated directly and affirmatively. For example, "The plaintiff/defendant will win because..." One of the biggest downfalls here is hedging. The candidate should take a stand and stick to it. Once the conclusion is determined, even if the candidate is unsure he is correct, it should be stated. Bar examiners will give points for the correct rule of law to be applied, the correct application of the rule to the facts and the correct conclusion, separately. An essay which correctly identifies all of the issues and the rules of law to apply, but incorrectly applies those rules to the facts and therefore, leads to an incorrect conclusion, will score more credit points than an essay which fails to identify the issues, or incorrectly identifies issues, fails to identify and apply the correct rule of law to the facts but somehow concludes correctly.

It is important to know key words and phrases. Presume the examiner is working from a list of words and phrases to look for in each essay, and will give credit for each word or phrase used. For example, if it is a tort question and one of the issues presented is whether or not the defendant's actions were the reason for the plaintiff's injury, the candidate should know to use the term "proximate cause" instead of three or four sentences to describe causation in lay terminology. The bar examiner can spot and credit these words and phrases much easier and there is less of a risk of being misunderstood, or worse yet, missed for credit where credit may have been due.

The candidate should be aware that the length of the answer is not important. There is a case where a candidate walked out of the test during the essay section considerably earlier than the others. She began to panic and left convinced and distraught that something was missed. This attitude of despair was carried into the next full day of multistate testing. As it turned out, she performed extraordinarily well on the essay questions, far above the points required to pass, and failed the multistate section.

If all of the issues were spotted, rules of law identified and applied and conclusions stated, then the answer is complete. It does not matter if it required three or six pages of writing. Logically a short statement to the point is a much easier read than a verbose lengthy statement of the same point!

The candidate should relax and stay positive and be commended for all of the hard work accomplished.

About the Author Sheila M. Foglietta, J.D. F/K/A Sheila M. Kenneally, J.D., is a practicing attorney in Clifton Park, New York. She has been a New York bar exam mentor for Micromash, an online bar exam review course since its inception in 1996. Her experience in practice involves real property law as lenders' attorney, Family law, and Trusts and Estates.
 

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