Bar Exam Success: Practice Writing Rules of Law

Of all the bar exam studying tips, one of the most overlooked is practicing writing out the rules of law. Practicing whole essays is great. IRAC is key, but how solid are your rule statements? Confidence that you can pound out the elements of many different legal tests, without thinking, will ease the anxiety of bar review.

Here’s an example from my law student career. “The federal government is a government of enumerated powers and can only exercise the powers granted to it by the Constitution.” My first day of Con Law I, our professor whipped out this phrase, mumbling it repeatedly throughout his initial lecture. We law students sat in stunned silence as he asked who was a Boy Scout and made that student stand to repeat the Boy Scout Oath. The student did, though it was mumbled as much as the prof’s “enumerated powers” line. The professor advised us:

On the exam, start every essay with this sentence: ‘The federal government is a government of enumerated powers and can only exercise the powers granted to it by the Constitution.’ It will frame your answer and remind you to seek out the source of Congress’ power whenever it acts.

He was so right. Nearly three years later, I still use that phrase to trigger what I need to think about in a constitutional law question: federalism, Dormant Commerce Clause, separation of powers, you name it. Your studying for the bar exam will benefit from a similar distillation of the primary rules in each subject.

Practice Writing the Rule Statements

Barbri and other bar review courses are very good at leading you through a lot of written material. You sit through hours of lectures. You write out practice essays and do hundreds of multiple choice practice questions. But how much time do you spend writing out the rules themselves? Most students are very good at the general concepts in a subject area, but may lack the concise rule-of-law statements that will garner more points on the bar exam.

For each subject, pick at least five of the bedrock legal principles, and learn to state them as rules. On the bar exam, you generally don’t have to cite your sources, so focus on crafting concise statements you can remember. Write out the rules (or type them out) over and over again. “In general, a partnership is governed by the partnership agreement. In the absence of an agreement, state law provides default rules.” That’s so simple, yet will start you off right for any partnership essay: look for an agreement, recall there are state defaults, explain what those are, decide how those might apply. You’re well on your way.

Master the Distinctions

There are some rules with very testable nuance. Take constitutional law, for example. Hopefully you’ll have tests for the three levels of scrutiny down pat: “A court will examine a law infringing on a fundamental right using strict scrutiny. To be valid, the law must be necessary to serve a compelling state interest.” The magic words for gender-based intermediate scrutiny add a layer of nuance worth noting. Yes, you know “significantly related” and “important government interest.” But don’t forget the Supreme Court said that laws discriminating against women need an “exceedingly persuasive justification.” Include this in your rule statement and you’ll let the bar examiners know just how prepared you are.

Make it Second Nature

There are many great bar exam study tips out there. But as you’re heading into the home stretch, knowing that you know the rules that you’ll be asked to apply will ease the stress when the days of the actual bar exam arrive.

But how will you know that you really know the rules? Because you will be able to repeat them, without having to process, right off the top of your head. Rule statements for the major subjects will become second nature, so when you sit down at the bar exam, the words will pour onto the page (or screen) easily, leaving your brain with the trickier task of applying that law to the facts presented.

Memorization can be tough. If you had very few closed-book exams in law school (this was my experience), you might not have mastered this mode of studying as a law student. But with practice, practice, and more practice just writing out rule statements again and again, you’ll give yourself a great advantage. Now’s the time to set aside just 15 extra minutes at the end of each study day to pound out the rules of law. You’ll be glad you did, when the stress of sitting for the bar exam tries to wipe everything you’ve learned from your mind.


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