Outlining Bar Exam Essays

With only three hours to complete six essays on the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE), your time is so limited you won't be able to create a comprehensive outline for each essay. You'll need a different approach.

Time limits make the MEE  the most intimidating part of the Uniform Bar Exam for many examinees. Sure, if you had a few hours to write an essay, you know you’d be able to adequately explain and apply the law and you wouldn’t be stressed out. But without the luxury of being able to consult your outlines or take time to reconstruct the principles that you’ve learned, you’ll see that you’ll have to learn to organize your thoughts and express them quickly and coherently.

Time management is key.

You simply won’t have time to compile detailed essay outlines, but it is still essential to identify the key legal issues you plan to address before you begin to write. In fact, we encourage our students to do this so that they won’t feel overwhelmed on essays with multiple issues and that they leave themselves enough time to address all of the relevant issues they’ve spotted.

When you write an essay outline for the MEE, keep it simple and concentrate your answer on the specific questions presented. You’ll also want to consider the following suggestions as you approach each essay:

  • Read the questions that follow the fact pattern prior to tackling the fact pattern itself.
  • Identify the legal issues that the bar examiners have presented in the questions (e.g. impeachment, identification of crimes committed, defenses, liability of various parties for injuries, congressional powers, when a corporation comes into existence, liability of corporate actors, etc.)
  • Carefully and aggressively read the fact pattern identifying any details that may impact the legal issues presented in the questions, paying special attention to any adjectives and adverbs describing the parties and their actions. Underline or circle everything that you think might be significant so that no details slip past you.
  • Revisit the questions and determine what arguments you plan to raise to answer each question.
  • Consider each question from the vantage point of each party involved to help you identify potential issues that the bar examiners may be expecting you to address (particularly if the question is broadly asking something like “what types of relief” could a party seek or “what theories” could a party assert. Even if you know the outcome in the majority of states, consider whether there might be alternative legal arguments that a party might raise).
  • In the essay booklet, briefly list the issues you plan to discuss next to each question.
  • Quickly review the key details that you underlined or circled to ensure you aren’t forgetting to address anything essential.
  • If you spotted a legal issue that is unrelated to the questions asked, ignore it.
  • Recognize that the bar examiners are not simply looking for a correct conclusion and instead will ask to you “Explain” your answer by identifying the key details, delivering the relevant law, and applying the facts to the law.
  • Sound like a lawyer by using legal terminology correctly.
  • Avoid discussions of policy or your own personal opinions.
  • Write efficiently. If you are short on time, understand that you may not be able to deliver all of the law you know.  Instead, write the best answer you can within the time limits by delivering succinct statements of the law and how it would be applied. Your job is not to write the best answer the bar examiners have ever read. It is simply to write the answer that will give you the most points within the time allotted and move on to the remaining questions.

Organize Your Answer Logically

Bar exam graders will review your answers thoroughly but quickly, so be sure to organize your answers logically, delivering a clear statement of the law for each legal issue you’ve identified, and then applying specific facts from the fact pattern explaining how a court might resolve that issue. It also makes sense to answer each of the numbered questions at the end of an essay in order, so that you don’t surprise the grader by addressing the third issue before the second and then the first. While the bar examiners won’t penalize you for addressing the questions out of order, essay grading is tedious. The fewer surprises you present, the better your chances of getting all the points you deserve.

Also remember that you don’t need to include a formal issue statement like “The first issue is whether there was complete diversity between the parties” unless you are struggling to start writing an answer and doing so will get you going. Instead, you can simply start such an answer by explaining the law regarding federal jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship, and then explain how the key details may or may not resolve the question. It is less important that you reach a single correct conclusion than that you convey to the bar examiners that you have a command of the law and how the facts presented create legal issues for the court. Don’t stress if after the exam one of your classmates concluded a party had established citizenship in a neighboring state therefore permitting federal jurisdiction based on diversity if your conclusion was more open ended but you properly identified the law and the key facts that the court would consider.

Looking for more advice regarding the MEE? Read some of our other bar exam essay tips.

You know everything there is to know about quorums. You’re an expert at constitutional standards of review. You’ve got the Rule Against Perpetuities down cold (maybe…).* Now what? It’s not enough to simply parrot rules of law on the bar exam. You’ve got to show the examiners that you actually understand the rules and know how to apply them. For that, you’ll need to focus on presentation.

Answer the question

Sounds obvious, right? But much time is wasted and many points are lost by focusing on issues that the bar examiners aren’t actually asking about. Read every bar exam question carefully to ensure that you understand what, exactly, is being asked. Does the question say that two parties entered into “a valid contract”? If so, don’t waste time discussing offer, acceptance, and consideration. The examiners are clueing you in to the fact that there is some other issue more worthy of your time. Likewise, be sure to follow any instructions given in the question. If the question tells you to ignore something, ignore it! If it tells you to assume a fact is true, assume it! If you don’t follow directions and spend time on uncontested issues, you are robbing yourself of time you should be spending on issues presented by the call of the question. And those are the ones worth the points!

Organization is key

It’s important to make clear to the examiners that you can effectively communicate the law and its application to clients and judges; it’s not enough to just spew everything you know about a certain subject onto the page. One way to keep yourself organized is to use transitional words, which serve as signposts throughout your answer and tell your reader what you plan to do. Words such as “generally” let the examiners know that there is a widely applicable rule, but also tells them that an exception may apply. Words like “here” and “in this case” signal that you are beginning your analysis, applying the law to the facts at hand. Words like “however” or “on the other hand” indicate that you plan to introduce a counterargument, and can keep your answer from seeming to contradict itself. By showing the examiners where you plan to go, you make it easier for them to follow your analysis, maximizing your points! A bonus: organizing your writing doesn’t just benefit your reader, it also helps you organize your thoughts and stay on track!

Speaking of staying on TRAC...

...Topic. Rule. Analysis. Conclusion. Following the TRAC format ensures that you are including only what is relevant and necessary. Each time you review one of your answers to a practice essay, go through and label each sentence with a T, R, A, or C. If you can’t label a part of your answer, chances are it doesn’t belong! Hints: Counterarguments are part of your analysis (and get an “A”). Policy and historical explanations usually don’t belong! It sometimes makes sense to use a “mini-TRAC” format, further breaking down your analysis in to more specific rules and analysis. This can be useful when you have to discuss several elements that each have their own rules of law, such as in a specific performance analysis.

Every minute counts, so maximize your time

Take the time to carefully read the call of the question first. This allows you to read the rest of the question more effectively, looking for key facts that are going to shape your answer. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the fact pattern and the players involved. After you read the call of the question again, take a few minutes to outline your answer. This includes sketching your rule statement, listing the key facts that will support your analysis, and taking stock of the amount of time you will spend on each subpart. Many students think that they don’t have any time to waste on outlining. However, by setting forth your rule, organizing the relevant facts, and allocating your time among the subparts, you will actually save time in the long run. Become adept at outlining answers as you study.

Most importantly, don’t use more than the allotted time for each question—even if it is just five minutes. Avoid the snowball effect—if you spend an extra five minutes on each question, you will run out of time on your final question! Watch your timing carefully, and when your time is up, quickly wrap up and move on.

Understand what is at stake and who you are writing for

Remember that the bar exam is pass/fail. You have no job or grade riding on your specific score. You do not need to dazzle the examiners with your new theories or analysis, as you might a law professor. You are trying to pass the bar exam. I tell my students to imagine that the examiners are lawyers who are experts in every topic but the one in question: they should use legal terms and phrases as if speaking to attorneys, but should also be careful not to skip any steps in analysis. For example, if you think that a statement is admissible under the dying declaration to the hearsay rule, you must first explain what hearsay is, then explain that it is generally inadmissible, and then explain that there are certain exceptions. Show your work.

Keep these essay-writing tips in mind, and you should be well on your way to bar exam success!

* It may seem impossible that you will ever master all of the law you’ll need for the bar exam. But you will eventually get there!


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