Being able to spot issues in a bar exam essay fact pattern is key if you want to maximize the amount of points you receive on the bar exam. Identifying the proper issue allows you to state the rule, apply the rule to the facts, and arrive at a conclusion. After all, if you miss the issue then you also miss all of the points that are allocated to the rule, analysis, and conclusion for that issue. So issue-spotting is something you should learn to master right off the bat! Here, we list a few tips on how to spot issues in a bar exam essay.
How to Spot Issues in a Bar Exam Essay
1. Focus on the call of the question.
Many bar exam essay fact patterns, including multistate essay exam fact patterns will have a specific call of the question. For example, the criminal law question on the February 2018 multistate essay exam question asked:
- Should the prosecution be suspended because the defendant is currently incompetent to stand trial? Explain.
- If the defendant is found competent to stand trial and the prosecution proceeds, will the jury likely find that, with respect to each element of the M’Naghten test, the defendant has met his burden of proof? Explain.
The call of the question, in this case, reveals the issues that you are supposed to address — competency to stand trial and insanity under the M’Naghten test. The examiners are not hiding the ball! You simply have to follow directions and answer each portion of the question accordingly.
Note that it is common for the call of the question to tell you the specific issues to address. Unlike a law school exam question, bar exam questions are more clear.
2. Look at the arguments the parties are making.
Sometimes the fact pattern will contain a legal argument by one of the parties. For example, in the Family Law question on the February 2018 multistate essay exam, the fact pattern said, “David wants a divorce. He also wants to obtain sole physical custody of Anna; he believes that Meg’s adultery should disqualify her as a custodial parent.”
This argument is not a compelling one (merely because a party has committed adultery will not automatically disqualify that parent as a custodial parent). However, even though it is not a “good” argument, you should still address it in your essay answer as it is an issue raised by the parties in the fact pattern.
Make it a point to underline or put an astericks by any argument you see a party making in a bar exam fact pattern.
3. Go back to the facts!
This is one of the best and simplest ways to spot issues in a bar exam essay.
If you struggle to identify the issue, go back to the facts. For example, the call of the question for the Contracts question on the February 2018 multistate essay exam asked, “Assuming that the common law of contracts governs, is the oral agreement concerning the woman’s lodging binding on the parties? Explain.”
This question does not tell you precisely which issue to address as an oral agreement could raise a lot of issues (parol evidence rule, modification, statute of frauds, etc.). By going back to the facts and carefully reviewing them, you can look for key facts, e.g., when the agreement was made, what the agreement was for, etc.
Re-examining the facts is one of the best way to make sure you are addressing the correct issues. So make it a habit to revisit the fact pattern if you are struggling to identify the issues.
4. Be aware of the highly tested areas of law.
Being aware of the highly tested areas of law can help you in multiple ways. It is great way to develop the skill to quickly spot issues in a bar exam essay question. Here is why:
- First, by being aware of highly tested areas of law, you will be able to spot those issues in a bar exam essay fact pattern. The examiners do not reinvent the wheel every exam. You are very likely to see some issues tested more than others.
- Second, if you are aware of the highly tested rules, you will be able to properly and quickly analyze that issue. You will not waste a lot of time trying to craft an eloquent rule statement.
- By being able to spot and address these highly tested issues, you will save time and give yourself more time to focus on any hidden or less obvious issues.
If you wanted to get better at tennis, you would practice tennis. If you want to get better at issue-spotting in bar exam essays, the best thing you can do is practice! As you practice answering essay questions, you will become used to focusing on the call of the question and identifying key facts that play a role in your analysis. Set aside time every week to practice answering essay questions and you will master this skill of issue spotting!
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