Thursday, June 19, 2014

Answer the Question!

Many bar applicants are unsuccessful on the written portion of the bar exam because they fail to adequately answer the question(s) posed by the examiners.  However, telling our students to “answer the question” not only seems obvious, but can also feel patronizing.  To avoid this, I clarify how a student can ascertain what the examiners are really asking by following these steps.

Step 1. Read the call of the question to identify the subject, parties, and cause(s) of action.  If the call is narrowly crafted (i.e. Can Abel be found liable to Cain under a strict liability theory?), make sure that you are answering the specific direction within the call.  If the call is broadly drafted (i.e. Discuss the liabilities of the parties.), you will need to determine the central focus from the facts presented.

Step 2. Before moving forward, recall the key topics within the subject area being tested.  You should be able to visualize your checklist, flowchart, or outline for each topic area.  You may even want to quickly write your mnemonics on your scratch paper.

Step 3. Now, it is time to “actively read” the fact pattern.  What does “actively read” mean?  Use a pen/pencil/highlighter (depending on your state bar policies) to circle, underline, or annotate the facts as you read through them slowly.  Pay attention to numbers, quoted language, unusual FORMATTING, and repetition within the fact pattern.  These are structural and factual issue signals.  Pay close attention to these facts and use them liberally within your answer as you apply the law.  Reading slowly and carefully will help you to fully synthesize and find relevance for all of the facts.

Step 4. Use your scratch paper.  Yes, use the paper provided to sketch out your answer before you begin typing your response.  Do NOT rewrite the entire fact pattern or your entire outline.  Use your scratch paper to list the buzzwords and legally significant facts.  But, you may also want to write the call of the question on your scratch paper to ensure that you answer it.  These brief notes will help later with your IRAC.

Step 5. An important last step: reread the call of the question!  Make sure that your scratch paper notes and initial impressions align to the actual question being asked.  Now, you are ready to begin writing your answer.

Bar exam drafting committees are constructing fact patterns and questions to test various skills and abilities.  The ability to identify legal issues and determine the legally relevant facts are two such skills.  Knowing the law thoroughly will help you spot issues and will help you answer the question.  But, practice will help even more.

(Lisa Bove Young)

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