Five Tips for Faster Bar Exam Essays

Guest post by Mary Campbell Gallagher.

People fail the bar exam because they don’t finish the essays. They spend so much time on an early essay that they can’t write the later essays. Or they work on all of the essays, but without finishing some or all of them. Either way, these bar candidates are writing too slowly, and it costs them their ticket to a law license. Finishing is key.

The good news is that writing slowly is not inborn, or the result of slow genes. On the contrary, slow writers and fast writers do different things when they write, they don’t just do the same things at different speeds. Change what you do, and you can finish the essays and your tasks on the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) or the California Performance Test (PT), perhaps even with time to spare.

If you can use Twitter, you can finish the bar exam essays in plenty of time.

Here is how to write the bar exam essays faster.

1 Use time for your structure. Write down what time you will start each essay and what time you will finish. Most state bar exams allow you either 20 or 30 or 45 or 60 minutes for each essay. Find out how much time your state allows. Always be conscious of time. Develop a sense of urgency. But wait. That’s not all. Write down what time you will start and finish each paragraph. Most paragraphs will take between six and eight minutes, depending on the length of the essay.

2 Always use principles of law to make your outline. Warning. You must read each fact pattern two or three times while you outline: not reading carefully is no way to save time. Do not outline by your conclusions or facts, outline by rules of law and possibly, in addition, by plaintiff-defendant pairs. You may change your mind about your conclusions while you are working through the essay. As Scott Turow says in One-L, a fact pattern can seem to go through “Merlin-like changes” as you work. But you won’t change your mind about whether answering that essay question requires applying the UCC Statute of Frauds. So outline with the law. Circle key facts in the fact pattern if you must, but don’t try writing the facts into your outline. Focus on the law. Then you can apply it to the facts as you draft your essay.

3 Once you have your outline ready, think the essay through quickly, and then start writing. One bar candidate who came to me complaining about never finishing the bar exam essays turned out to be taking an extra five minutes to make a list of all the facts before he started writing. Don’t do that. Don’t stew in your outline, don’t fester, don’t rewrite your outline or make new notes or rewrite the facts. Just start! Slow writers are usually writers who stall at the beginning. Remember, you are using time for your structure. If you start slow, you cannot make up the time. Train yourself to start fast.

4 Treat each paragraph as a separate, timed, task, like a short-answer question. Mentally plan how to prove your points, using law and facts, within the time you have available for each paragraph. Decide in your head how you will prove your points, checking to make sure that you can write down your ideas in time. Then work your plan. Constantly check to make sure you are on time. You are not being paid by the word, like Dickens. Do not keep desperately trying to give the bar examiners every suggestion they might conceivably reward. Your job is just to be professional and to start and finish on time.

5 Before the exam, train yourself to write concisely. Then use your self-editing skills on the bar exam. American legal writing is more like Hemingway than like Melville. Everything is active voice, not passive voice. Write:  The murderer shot the victim, not: The victim was shot by the murderer. Use few or no modifiers. Write: The murderer shot the victim, not: The cruel murderer shot the helpless victim. Practice making your writing and your thinking concise. Figure out how to paraphrase the newspaper reports you read. Figure out how to summarize case holdings in a few words. Make it a game. Practice outlining and writing old bar exam essays, always keeping track of the time, using a stopwatch or a kitchen timer.

Figure out how to make your ideas into tweets. When it comes to passing the bar exam, writing concisely is second only to knowing the law and applying it. Tweet your way into a law license!

Mary Campbell Gallagher is founder and president of BarWrite® and BarWrite Press, which have been offering supplemental courses for the bar exam for more than 20 years. She is the author of Scoring High on Bar Exam Essays and Perform Your Best on the Bar Exam Performance Test (MPT).

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smaedli/3271558744/)

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  • http://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com/ Alison Monahan

    Great tips. A friend of mine just passed the NY bar with a few weeks of studying (not kidding), and she said part of the reason was probably that she didn’t know enough to be wordy!

  • Franz Vancura

    I agree with Ms. Monahan. There is the the popular myth of the bar exam and then there is the actual bar exam, which is so much easier than it’s made out to be. The thing that law students should understand about the bar exam is that it is a minimum proficiency test. While you are tested on multiple subjects, the bar exam doesn’t require you to know anything in depth. A law professor at my school created his own bar exam outline, and it was all of 18 double-spaced pages long. I used his minimalist outlines for 80% of my seven day bar prep and passed the exam with ease.

    • Stephen

      Did you just write you only prepped for a total of 7 days? Or did you mean you only used the minimalist outlines for the last 7 days?

  • http://www.lawyerscientist.org Jamie Cuticchia

    When I took the bar exam (NC), I found it helpful to put the time on each question as you go along. So if the test started at 9:00am, I would put 9:00am on the fact pattern, when I went to question two, I would put (e.g.) 9:27am on the fact pattern. So if I was shooting for 30 minutes a question, I could just look at the clock. When it is 9:57am, I have to stop.

  • http://www.austin-car-accident-lawyer.com Mel

    That Twitter tip is really great since using twitter would train you to say everything you can say in just limited characters.

  • Jo

    I wonder if the twitter tip would help with my question.

    Does anyone have suggestions on how to not have a conversation with yourself while typing out an essay? I know I answered the question/exam in my head but when I read my practice exams some of the paragraphs make no sense.