California Bar Exam: Trouble Spots and How to Conquer Them

By Steve Levin, BARBRI Senior Director of Essay Testing

Unless you’ve already taken a different U.S. bar exam, the California Bar Exam probably is unlike any exam you’ve ever taken in your life. It’s certainly more expansive than any exam you faced in law school and makes finals week look like child’s play.

Imagine preparing for finals in about 18 subjects (technically 16, but you have to know both the California rules and the federal rules for two of them). Challenging? You bet, but not impossible. I’d like to go over some of the details of the exam to make you more comfortable and to help improve your outcome.

The Exam at a Glance

The California Bar Exam is a two-day exam (breathe a sigh of relief—until recently, it was a three-day exam) comprised of three pieces:

  • The MBE (Multistate Bar Exam): A 200-question multiple choice test given in 2 three-hour sessions
  • The PT (Performance Test): A 90-minute practical exercise in which you will be asked to do something a first-year lawyer might be asked to do using a file and library containing all the information you’ll need to respond
  • The California Essays: Five essay questions designed to be answered in one hour each (three in the morning and two in the afternoon, along with the PT) on any one or more of the following subjects:
    • Civil Procedure
    • Agency
    • Constitutional Law
    • California Civil Procedure
    • Contracts (including Sales)
    • California Evidence
    • Criminal Law
    • Community Property
    • Criminal Procedure
    • Corporations
    • Evidence
    • Partnerships & LLCs
    • Real Property
    • Professional Responsibility
    • Torts
    • Trusts
    • Wills

Issue Spotting

The essays present a few trouble spots for many students. The first involves issue spotting. Most of the questions are short—less than a page long, including the interrogatories at the end of the stories. But they are packed, and I mean packed, with issues. And while some exams hand you the issues “on a silver platter”, in many California questions you have to work just to figure out what the issues are.

For example, the following two interrogatories were in a February 2018 question:

  1. What challenges under the United States Constitution, if any, could Ivan reasonably raise to the dining hall quotations, and what is the likely outcome? Discuss.
  2. What challenges under the United States Constitution, if any, could Ivan reasonably raise to the denial of his requests for the book and the tea, and what is the likely outcome? Discuss.

Do you have any idea what is at issue? Also, note how the interrogatories say “what challenges”—as in, there could be (and on the California Bar, likely are) more than one. And, how much should you write; how many issues should you be looking for? When is enough, enough?

How will you know what issues to look for? Look at questions from previous exams and review answers addressing them. The California Bar Exam has been around a long time and there is not much new under the sun. What has been tested in the past is a pretty good indicator of what is likely to be tested in the future.

Formatting

The second stumbling block is formatting ―how should answers be formatted? This is a trick question to some degree. Many students (and some instructors, too) think there is a magic formula, but there really isn’t. If you check out the California Bar Examination instructions website, you’ll see a lot of gobbledygook about this.

The important thing to note is that the examiners want answers written in a “lawyer-like manner.” This is a logically written answer that sets out a conclusion and supports it by discussing the applicable law and the facts that lead to the conclusion.

Now you know issue spotting is important for your score, and analysis counts too. Be prepared to note what the issues are, tell the examiner what law controls, and state what facts are important in reaching whatever conclusion you reach. And, yes, you should reach a conclusion. All of these things are important.

Timing

Another stumbling block for some students on the essay portion of the exam is timing. Students often run out of time. Despite how it may seem, each question is worth the same number of points. So you really should be spending no more than one hour on any particular question and should avoid skipping questions of which you are unsure. This will keep time on your side.

Keep BARBRI in Mind

To help you in your preparation, BARBRI selects California essays for practice that cover the issues most likely to arise on the bar exam. If you prepare with BARBRI and work through the practice essays assigned, you will have seen a majority of the issues that will appear on your essay exam and will be ready to conquer them.

About the author: Steve Levin has passed the bar exam in 10 U.S. jurisdictions with scores in the top 1% of the exam takers.

How to Succeed on the MBE

By Roger Meslar, BARBRI Senior Director, Assessments and MBE Content

What are three things we know about the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE)?

Well, with 200 questions to answer over a period of six-hours, we know it’s a demanding test. With seven major areas of substantive law tested, we also know there are questions on a wide range of issues and sub-issues within those areas of law. And with each multiple-choice question drafted by a committee of law professors, we know your reading comprehension skills will be tested like never before.

That may be a lot to take in but know that BARBRI has you covered. With our expertise and guidance, you will be ready when the MBE time comes. Here are some ways to prepare for success on the exam.

Practice to the Clock

To help you build up the physical and mental endurance you will need for the MBE, BARBRI provides you with thousands of MBE practice questions, including two complete 200-question practice exams and three complete 100-question half exams. The secret to success here is to do practice exams under timed conditions to replicate, as much as possible, the actual bar exam experience.

BARBRI’s 200-question simulated MBE provides you with a detailed score analysis comparing your performance to every other BARBRI student taking the exam. This score report highlights how you are performing on every topic and subtopic, so you can adjust how you are studying based on this report. So, make sure you take this exam when you see it on the schedule.

Focus Where It Matters Most

A smart study strategy is to focus on the areas of law most heavily tested on the MBE. BARBRI’s MBE subject matter experts have analyzed the MBE for decades and have identified the most important areas to target. Don’t try to master every single one of the thousands of rules and concepts that could be tested, or you may find yourself overwhelmed and anxious about your preparation.

BARBRI’s adaptive Personal Study Plan (PSP) focuses your assignments on the core areas that are most heavily tested to help you allocate your time most efficiently. And when you read the Conviser Mini Review, you will see a host of charts and exam tips that zero in on the issues that come up regularly on the exam. Also, just like with the simulated MBE, the percentile rank information you get on all of your online MBE assignments tells you where your weak areas are. Use this information to study smarter, not harder.

Learn from Each Question

Learn how to read and analyze MBE multiple-choice questions. MBE success is not about how many questions you answer each day or throughout your preparation; it’s about how much you learn from each question you answer. BARBRI’s MBE Workshops teach you a systematic problem-solving strategy you can use on any question you encounter on the bar exam. This strategy helps you quickly identify the issue being tested and the key facts that point you to the correct answer.

For each question you work, you should also determine whether you got the question right or wrong, whether your analysis of the question was on-point, and whether you identified and understood the narrow rule being tested in the question. Reading through the explanatory answer for each question is vital to your success.

One more thing we know about the MBE: BARBRI has decades of experience helping students all over the world pass it. Trust us to help you do the same!

Unraveling the Mystery of the MPT

By Marta Young, BARBRI Institutional Programs Course Instructor

If just the thought of the Multistate Performance Test (lovingly called the MPT) is raising your blood pressure, trust me, you are not alone. Each bar review session, I hear from students with high levels of anxiety over this test. If you fall into this category, keep reading… Let me help unravel some of the mystery and anxiety for you.

First, what exactly is the MPT?

According to the examiners, the MPT is a writing assignment designed to test how well you can perform an everyday lawyer-like task, such as writing a memo or letter. Essentially, can you help the client solve a legal problem that a beginning attorney might be asked to handle? Sounds easy enough, but there is a catch: you only have 90 minutes to read through the materials and draft your answer.

You read that right. Only 90 minutes (and if you are taking the bar exam in a Uniform Bar Exam jurisdiction, you will have two 90-minute MPTs back to back). But, wait, there is an upside.

The test is an entirely closed-universe and takes place in a fictional jurisdiction called Franklin, which I like to picture as a beautiful, magical, tropical place despite the fact there is so much urgent litigation. This means that everything you need to draft your answer is included in the packet: a memo regarding your task, the client’s facts, and all of the applicable Franklin law. Happily, this is the one component of the bar exam that doesn’t require any rule memorization.

Second, how should I approach this test?

Often, the easiest way to tackle a seemingly difficult problem is to break it apart into manageable pieces. The same is true for the MPT. One of the first things I ask a student who is struggling with the MPT is, “Tell me how you went through the packet.”

Usually, the student will admit that he or she simply read the packet from beginning to the end with no clear strategy in mind. A better approach is to begin with the task memo, skip over the remaining documents in the client file (for now), and go directly to the library to review the law.

Why? Because it is so important to gain a basic understanding of the Franklin law before you start digging into the facts in the file. This will not only help you pull out the legally significant facts on your first read, but it will also save you precious time by reducing the number of instances you move back and forth between documents in the packet.

Another helpful time-saving strategy is to begin working on your answer as you move through the MPT documents. Instead of creating a separate outline after reading through everything, start working on an outline that can become your answer.

For example, after leaving the task memo you can set-up your document (as a memo, letter, brief, etc.) and frame some of the issue headings based on your supervisor’s instructions. Of course, your outline must be flexible, as not all of the nuances to the client’s problem will be revealed in the task memo. Rather, issues will appear after reading the law and the client’s facts.

Third, what structure should I use to write my answer?

Sometimes, the examiners will be generous and provide you with specific drafting guidelines for your answer, particularly for a more unusual type of task. If you are not provided with drafting guidelines, however, do not panic. You can almost always default to IRAC regardless of the type of document you are drafting.

Your goal is to set forth the issues pertaining to the client’s legal problem, discuss the applicable Franklin law, and then apply that law to the client’s facts. Even in a letter or brief, though your tone may be different, you are still ultimately analyzing issues by applying rules to facts.

Your answer will not look perfect. In fact, you do not have time for perfection. Your mission is to set forth the core of an answer in the time that you do have. This means that you should spend your time where it really counts — on your legal analysis — rather than on the “look” of your response. If you have time at the end, you can always come back and polish.

Finally, the biggest key to success on the MPT is practice, practice, practice. It takes time to refine your strategy, so start early and embrace the MPT. And remember, BARBRI will provide you with specific guidance during the MPT workshop as well as detailed feedback on your MPT submission. We are here to help you own the MPT!

The One Thing You Need to Know / Do to Pass the Bar Exam

By Sam Farkas, Esq,
BARBRI Curriculum Architect and Instructor

As you approach the bar exam, you’re likely to hear all kinds of “quick fix” advice, which often sounds something like, “to pass, all you really need to do is ________.” You are a trained critical thinker, so hopefully, any bar success claim beginning with, “all you have to do is…” triggers suspicion.

As the old saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

At BARBRI, we’ve heard everything from “create your own study plan” to “you only need this book,” “you only need to work 1,000 multiple-choice questions,” or “you only need to study for 100 hours.” The list goes on and on. Assuming these claims are even true (dig in a bit and you often find that those making these claims actually worked harder than they suggest), why experiment and risk your one opportunity to be a first-time bar passer?  Sure, an applicant with a strong knowledge of the law, excellent study, reading, analytical and writing skills, who faces no real consequences if he/she fails, and who is committed to proving all the doubters wrong, might be able to eke out a passing score. But, like all dubious advertisement claims, such advice should come with that fine print disclaimer: “individual results may vary.”

For any significant achievement like passing the bar exam, there are no simple one-size-fits-all shortcuts to bypass the work required for success.

There is simply no amount of “good luck” that can overcome a deficit of knowledge on this exam. When you walk into the exam room, you want to know that you gave it your all. You want to know that you followed an effective bar prep plan, did the work and took ownership of your success. BARBRI provides you with a Personal Study Plan (PSP) that maximizes your study investment by focusing you on what is most important for you to pass the exam. It leverages science and technology to boost learning and progress, and it works in partnership with you, adjusting to your schedule, strengths and weaknesses, and performance. With the PSP, you will not stress about what law to focus on or what practice questions to work. You will not have to worry about whether you are on track for success. You will not have to wonder how you are doing in comparison to the vast majority of applicants taking the exam with you. When you allow the experts to guide you through your preparation, you get to focus on what matters most— learning what you need to pass the bar.

So, here’s one thing you really do need to know to pass the bar exam.

There is no such thing as luck. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Your opportunity is set. What are you doing to prepare for it?