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Why is it so Difficult to Achieve a Passing Score on Law School and Bar Exams?

Producing a passing law school essay exam answer is perhaps the most difficult aspect of law school. It requires all of your hard-won skills - analysis and clear articulation, in writing and under timed conditions - to get a passing score. That same difficulty extends to bar exams as well, which is why it is so important to understand what law school and bar exams are testing and how they are scored.

The purpose of law school exams, as well as bar exams, is to test legal knowledge and how that law applies to facts given in an exam hypothetical. Law school and bar essay exams are intended to evaluate the ability to think like a lawyer and demonstrate that ability under timed conditions in a closed hypothetical exam universe.  

Law Professors and Bar Examiners assume the examinee knows the law, so an answer that simply philosophizes on the law receives little credit in an essay exam. 

What law professors and bar examiners are looking for in a law school and bar exam essay answer is a clear demonstration of an examinee’s ability to apply the law to facts. This is what examiners evaluate in every exam answer. It’s what determines if the examinee really understands the law and can apply it in the context of an exam hypothetical. 

It’s one thing to know the law, which most law students and bar candidates do. It is another thing to demonstrate the ability to apply the law in a written law exam essay answer. 

The primary skills required to write an effective essay answer include:

Responding specifically to the calls of the question, 

Spotting the issues, 

Outlining the exam to ensure proper organization, and 

Writing persuasive analysis.  

As we’ll discuss in detail below, every examinee must develop a tried and true method of success to master these skills for essay writing. These skills require diligent and regular practice, both in law school and during bar exam preparation. 

  1. Answering The Calls Of The Question

Achieving exam success for law students and bar exam candidates begins with a thorough understanding of what the examiners want in the answer - and what the examiners want is located in the Call of the Question. Effective exam procedure always begins with the Call of the Question. 

Even at this early stage in the exam process, a misunderstanding of the Call or a failure to follow directions can stand in the way of crafting a successful passing answer, which is why the first step when taking a law school and bar essay exam is to read and understand the Calls of the Question. Without taking sufficient time to understand the Call of the Question - to understand what the examiners are asking - examinees too often launch into discussions that are non-responsive or irrelevant to what is being asked. 

This is always fatal to your final exam score.

Every law student and bar candidate must respect the importance of the Call, beginning by reading the Call of the Question twice prior to reading the exam. This approach provides a strong starting point for issue recognition, proper organization, and identifying what’s important to the analysis of the issues.  

Another effective technique for drawing out important data at the start is to underline the names of the parties and causes of action identified in the Call.  Also, examinees must ensure a full understanding of the directions at the Call stage so they are answering the correct question in the correct manner. Failure to do so always results in a failing grade. 

  1. The Importance of Issue Spotting

An important mantra for law students is, “more issues, more points” because law school and bar exam essay questions and answers require the ability to spot and thoroughly discuss all of the relevant issues.

To spot the issues, it is necessary to read through the essay exam twice, at minimum, strictly from a factual perspective, because the legal issues arise from the facts.  

Understanding the facts is the most important criterion for a successful answer, because the facts raise the issues and the law must be applied to the facts in a persuasive manner to support or negate each element of each rule.  

Law school essay exams test a finite number of issues. This is why it’s so important to spot all the major issues - and the majority of the minor ones - in order to accumulate enough points to pass. If there are 10 issues in an exam and an examinee only spots 5 or 6, the examinee cannot pass despite doing an excellent job discussing the ones that were spotted.  Issue spotting is a game of points; the more issues spotted and thoroughly discussed, the more points. Therefore, best practice is to read the fact pattern at least twice to ensure a thorough understanding of the facts from which the issues arise.

Once you have an understanding of the facts, it’s time to start spotting issues. Read through the exam once again. As issues are spotted, mark them.  To improve issue spotting, make a checklist for each subject. Cross-reference all the exam issues against the issue checklist. This will provide a method to hit all the issues without overlooking any. 

Next, decide between the major and minor issues on the exam. Major issues are the ones that carry the most weight for scoring. More facts generally go to major issues than minor ones.  All issues arise from the facts, and those facts relate to the elements of the rules.  

Thorough issue spotting prevents examinees from writing on issues that do not apply, because writing on non-issues will result in a loss of valuable test time and a loss of credibility with the grader.  Examinees should place themselves into the exam, because one of the key skills learned in law school that carries over into the practice of law is the skill of articulating arguments on either side of an issue.  

One more tip to improve issue spotting: beware of dates, times, quotations, places, names and the use of adjectives, verbs, and adverbs in the fact pattern - because descriptive words many times develop into arguable issues. 

  1. Outlining Your Law School And Bar Exams

Another area of difficulty when writing law school exams and bar exams is outlining the exam.  Always outline and then write the issues in chronological order. Present them in the IRAC format - Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion.  IRAC is the basic script that all lawyers use. It is the writing skill that must be developed in law school and demonstrated on legal essay exams. 

Start the outline by listing each issue under the appropriate lawsuit as specified in the Calls of the Question.  To the right of each issue, list each element of the rule in vertical order.  To the right of each element of the rule, list all relevant facts that either support or negate each element. 

Then reread the essay exam once again to anticipate counter arguments that can be reasonably raised by both parties to the lawsuit.  Always make sure that issues and arguments are organized in a logical manner. 

  1. Writing a Persuasive Answer

For each issue presented in the final answer provide an issue headnote, followed by the applicable rule. Then follow with the application, analyzing how the law and facts intersect. Finish with a conclusion supported by the analysis that preceded it.  

To analyze the issue persuasively, apply the facts to each element of the rule, making sure to convey to your reader the reasons WHY that element succeeds or fails.  No Examiner simply wants to know the conclusion, which is what too many examinees jump to instead of discussing how they arrived at that conclusion. No Examiner wants to see IRC. Every Examiner wants to see your thought process in the “A” of IRAC – how the facts and rules combine, and how that leads to the conclusion. 

Rather than writing persuasively, too many law students and bar candidates frequently try to dazzle the Examiner with their legal acumen instead of applying that law acumen to issue spotting and factual discussions related to the relevant law.  To earn full points, use the facts to explain WHY each element of the rule succeeds or fails. That is what earns the high score.

If the issue is whether Bob made an offer to Pete, you need to convey WHY you believe Bob entered into a contract with Pete.  An example of a successful answer to the issue is “When Bob told Pete that he wanted to sell Pete his water skis for $350.00, Bob made a present outward manifestation of intent to be bound by contract because Pete could either accept or reject the offer by either answering yes or no or tendering payment of $350.”  With this answer, you are supplying the reasons WHY Bob made an offer to Pete - applying the facts to the elements of the rule.  

Bonus Pro-tip: Concluding In The Answer

Always provide a well-crafted overall conclusion for each issue.  Each conclusion may only be worth a point, but with 10 issues on an exam, those points can make the difference between passing and failing. 


Fleming’s has taught thousands of law students and bar candidates how to pass difficult essay exams by applying the Fleming’s writing method.  No matter how far along you are in preparing for your law school essay exams or the bar exams, if you want to give yourself the best chance to go from law student to lawyer, register today for Fleming’s Home Study Legal Essay Writing Workshop.
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