A Guest Column by Brian Hahn at Make This Your Last Time
How do I write a passing California Bar Exam essay?
Imagine you stop random bar exam takers on the street and ask them this question.
Bear with this hypothetical because no one really leaves the house while preparing for the California Bar Exam. And technically you don’t “pass” any individual essay; you pass the entire exam with enough points, all or nothing.
What might they tell you?
- Know the rules cold
- IRAC, write like a lawyer
- Spend a lot of time on analysis
All correct answers… but also incomplete answers… in that they are necessary but not sufficient. These answers are generally correct, but not specific enough to the bar exam.
Yes, lawyers do write in IRAC. Lawyers know the rules from research and experience but also are able to identify the issues in the first place. They know how to judge the situation and the outcome, rather than merely “know” theory.
On the other hand, bar takers think they have to discuss every minute angle in depth like they did in law school. Or they go into “creative writing” mode, putting down whatever comes to mind. They get emotionally invested in characters named P and D and create unnecessary courtroom drama.
Forget what you learned in law school. Forget what you may have learned from your clerkship. Forget any “life experiences” you’ve had.
Instead, think: Write like a bar taker.
This is a different game. It’s time to relearn.
And remember that if you can improve one essay by 5 raw points on these California bar essays, you can do the same for all five of them. One “5-point insight” could be worth 25 extra points! For many people that is the difference between passing and failing.
1) “Analysis” is not as important as issues and rules
Here’s the hierarchy of what I consider to be the most important components of a bar essay:
- Application and conclusion
Handy acronym to remember this: IRAC.
To be clear, they are ALL very important. But try shifting your focus away from thinking you have to write a word salad and fill in the space to do well on the essays.
No issues = no IRAC = no points.
If you can’t even identify the issues, you won’t even get to recite the rules or apply them. But if you can, issues will cascade into rules and application, and you will at least get some partial credit.
Imagine this: You’re a grader with thousands of the same essay to read.
You’re getting paid $3.25 for each one you grade. What are you going to do? Read each one carefully and balance the merits of the arguments and zzz…
Most likely, you will abandon such notions after the 16th repeat of the same essay and realize, “Hey, why don’t I just see if they discussed the issues? If they at least hit the issues, I can probably skim through the rules and the discussion to see if they got the ‘right’ answer.”
Racehorse vs. specific calls of the question
This is especially true for “racehorse” essays. How do you tell if an essay is going to be one of them?
It will ask open-ended questions like “What may D be guilty of?” Or “What ethical violations has L committed?” Or “What remedies may P obtain against D?”
In these cases, you’ll want to focus more on identifying as many bases of guilt or liability, or remedies, as possible. In other words, identify all the relevant issues.
Professional Responsibility is a great example of where this is true. Hint: Since you know PR is practically guaranteed to appear, you should know the rules AND the issues for this subject for sure.
Click here to see a great example of a Wills essay that scored 85, courtesy of BarEssays. What do you notice?
Stop obsessing over wordy analysis. Leave that behind in law school. Analyze to the extent you need to.
Racehorse-type questions are different from specific questions like “Is D guilty of burglary?” In this case, you’ll want to go deeper into sub-issues, for example, creating IRACs for each element of burglary (breaking, entering, etc.).
And btw, I make a distinction between “analysis” and “application.” Yes, you should apply the rules to the given facts correctly to answer the question, but be careful not to get too lost in deep analysis.
The rules are still important! If you can hit all the relevant issues first of all, and recall accurate corresponding rule statements from memory (and apply them correctly), you’re well on your way to a solid essay.
2) No need to “ping pong”
There’s this unnecessary approach that some bar takers tend to take, and that is making up conjectures and setting up weak arguments only to knock them down and come back to the original argument.
Dude, just go with the initial argument and save yourself and the grader some time. This way, you will have more time to organize and finish your essay.
Examples courtesy of BarEssays:
You will see that these applicants ultimately argued that Priscilla will win her motion.
But Grocery was pulled into this courtroom drama. They put words in Grocery’s mouth to create strawman arguments, only to knock them down. For what reason?
Make a case for the “correct” conclusion. What’s your ultimate conclusion on the issue?
Fact patterns are often designed to make sure there is a correct direction, like on the MBE. The essay hypothetical has to be unambiguously well within good “bar law” so that there is no debate. If the facts are ambiguous (sometimes they are), you can discuss different possible outcomes.
Of course in real-life court each party is going to argue the way they want. On bar essays, you can make reasonable inferences (e.g., if someone blows smoke at your face, a reasonable person is likely going to consider it an offensive gesture). But don’t make up how each side is going to argue if there’s no support in the facts.
Unless the facts are vague or missing, we do not need to make this kind of argument of “counterarguing the facts” (as opposed to counterarguing with legal theories, like defenses).
Put another way, in the above examples, it didn’t matter what Grocery would have argued. It’s filler.
Instead, get straight to the point. Come back later to polish your arguments if you have time.
3) No giant walls of text
Graders are actual humans. They grade essays on the toilet. They wait for stoplights to squeeze in an essay. (True stories.)
They are your “clients” on the bar exam.
So you want to make the grader’s job as easy as possible. It will help them tremendously if you make your writing easy to understand.
The better they can understand you, the more they’ll believe you are intelligent and know what you’re doing (and deserving of points).
From what I’ve seen, the worst offenses of frustrating writing are (i) commingling rules and application and (ii) writing giant walls of text.
Commingling R and A
Let me get this out of the way.
For each IRAC and mini-IRAC, see if you can keep rules to one paragraph (probably around 2-3 sentences).
Keep the application of said rules to another paragraph. Don’t introduce NEW rules here. Only discuss the rules cited above.
There’s no formal requirement to do it this way, but it will help you and the reader stay organized.
Block of text
Did you actually read the essay excerpts I pulled in earlier above?
It was hard for me to read, too. A grader is unlikely to read a huge chunk of text over and over to understand what you’re trying to say.
Instead, use paragraphs liberally. Easy to read, easy to grade! Don’t get “creative.” Stick to clean IRAC. Don’t ramble.
The way to be able to write clearly is to already have seen how the issues get resolved. The examiners can only test you on so many issues and rules. That’s why they’re called fact PATTERNS. The past will guide your future.
You will see not only fact patterns—but issue patterns.
Practice: By looking at past exams, you will have seen it all… or most of what they could test you on. They can and will come up with at least one curveball. Find past essays and performance tests here. They are also available on BarEssays along with the thousands of essays in the database.
But there’s no point in doing the work if you don’t fill in the gap afterward. What you do between getting on the scale changes the reading on the scale.
Feedback: Compare your work to the selected answers or real graded answers available on places like BarEssays to see what gets you a low – or high – scoring answer.
What did you learn today about writing passing bar essays?
- Shift your focus away from “analysis”—to identifying all the relevant issues (and reciting the corresponding rules).
- Don’t be tempted to write “ping pong”-style arguments. Get to the point.
- Make your writing easy to read. Think about the person reading it. That means, keep your IRAC clean and in logical chunks (use paragraphs).
Of course, there are other things you could avoid, but these are the biggest and quickest changes you could make today on your way to a 65.
The best way to learn how essay answers actually score high (65 or more) is to look at them and compare them to lower-scoring essays. You can do that with BarEssays. It’s one of the top supplements I recommend to my readers and clients when it comes to the essays on the California Bar Exam.
You can sign up for BarEssays by going here. You can also learn how to receive a discounted membership by signing up for the Make This Your Last Time mailing list, which will provide a host of additional tips you won’t see anywhere else.