The Michigan bar exam requires you to write in a much different style than law school exams. This is, in part, because Michigan bar exam essay questions usually focus on just one subject and two or three issues. Unlike law school exams, where you were expected to pick out 100 issues in an exam fact pattern (and you might even get points for creatively spotting issues that aren’t there), on the Michigan bar exam you are expected to respond directly to the issues presented. If you “find” issues that the writer didn’t intend to insert into the fact pattern, you will likely lose points for being unfocused. Further, unlike in law school, your answer to a Michigan bar exam essay question should not begin with a long, flowery, eloquently written two-paragraph-long overview of the law. Instead, it needs to be concise, on-point, and respond directly to the issues presented.
Because Michigan bar exam questions are so different from law school exam questions, many students struggle when they try to write answers to Michigan bar exam questions. If you are struggling to write satisfactory bar exam answers while you are practicing, here are some tips for writing better Michigan bar exam essay answers:
First, focus on the call of the question.
The call of the question is the part (usually in bold) at the end of the essay question. It reveals exactly what you should focus on in your exam answer. For example, the call of the question for the Civil Procedure question on the July 2013 Michigan bar exam was, “(1) Can the city, after trial and not having previously raised the issue, challenge on appeal the district court’s jurisdiction, and (2) regardless of your answer to the first question, did the district court have jurisdiction over the complaint? Explain your answers.”
I recommend that you structure your entire answer around the issues presented in the call of the question. For each issue, you should state the law, apply it to the facts, and arrive at a conclusion. For example, in response to the Civil Procedure question above, begin your answer to Part (1) of the question by discussing when subject matter jurisdiction can be raised. Then apply the law to the facts and arrive at a conclusion. Begin your answer to Part (2) of the question by talking about when the federal district court has jurisdiction. Then apply the law to the facts and arrive at a conclusion.
That’s it. Your exam answer should be precisely focused on those two issues. Do not start your answer by saying everything you know about Civil Procedure. Do not look for other issues in the fact pattern. Simply focus directly on the issues at hand and then move on to the next question.
Second, do not waste valuable time repeating what happened in the fact pattern at the beginning of your essay.
Many students have a tendency to do this (perhaps out of nervousness). Instead of diving right into the main issue, they will start their essays by repeating what happened in the fact pattern. They will say, “In this case, the city sued the tribe alleging a nuisance. Then the tribe removed the case to the federal district court. Then…”
You should get out of this habit right now for two reasons: First, it wastes time. You only have twenty minutes to write a decent response to an essay question. Don’t waste five of them repeating facts that are already in the fact pattern. You get zero points for saying something that is already there.
Second, it annoys the grader. The same grader will grade every single Civil Procedure essay that is written in response to that Michigan bar exam question. That grader knows the facts. In fact, the grader is sick of reading the facts and as such, will certainly not give you any points for repeating what happened in the fact pattern at the beginning of your essay. (Note that you do, however, get points for picking out specific facts when you are applying the law to the facts).
Similarly, you also do not get any points for repeating your conclusions. Some students state their conclusion after discussing each issue then have a separate paragraph to repeat their conclusions at the end of their essay answer. This wastes time. You don’t get points for saying the same thing twice.
Third, make it easy to read your essays.
The underpaid lawyer that is reading your essay does not want to read a long, jumbled exposition where you talk about the rule, conclude, mention the main issue, add a little analysis, go back and add something you forgot to the rule, mention another issue, state a few exceptions to the rule, then repeat your conclusion twice…
Instead, talk about the issues sequentially. Make it very clear which issue you are discussing. Break up your essay into paragraphs. Underline or bold key words or phrases so the grader finds what they are looking for quickly and easily. Draw attention to what you know. Give them confidence in your answer. Make them like you for making their job easier. Make them want to give you points!
If you are having trouble getting into the habit of writing concise answers, don’t be too hard on yourself — after all, you are “untraining” your brain from three years of law school. You still have plenty of time to practice and improve your essays.
Looking for personalized tips for writing better Michigan bar exam essay answers? If you are looking for precise feedback on your practice essays or the opportunity to receive feedback on a six-question essay exam composed from hand-picked essay questions from prior years, please contact us here. Click here for more tips on how to improve your bar exam essay score.
Ms. Ashley Heidemann graduated as the number 1 law student out of over 200 students in her class of 2011 at Wayne State University. She, along with a team of tutors, tutors for law students and the bar exam. She also offers a Law School Preparatory Course for students interested in learning the skills necessary to achieve a high GPA in law school.