Starting with the July 2012 Essay portion of the MA Bar Exam, the commonly known nickname “Passachusetts” became no longer applicable. Compared to the last thirty bar exams, these essays were by far the most issue-laden and challenging, especially with respect to the time given to answer each question. With 36 minutes per essay (to issue-spot, outline and write), Massachusetts is definitely making their bar students rise to the type of challenge we see in states like New York, California and Florida.
For example, in Question 7 of the Afternoon Session of the Essay Exam, a student is asked to analyze the various issues surrounding a domestic relations question. In the past, these usually focused on straight forward pre-marital agreements, support and custody issues. This essay, while involving agreement and support issues, also included capacity to marry, void and voidable marriage (drunk impotent creepy CEO husband who marries 16 year old), interesting contractual issues, issues surrounding modern conception (IVF), and issues surrounding forcing someone to be a baby-daddy. While the concepts themselves are not too difficult, two significant changes must be noted from the Domestic Relations question of the past:
- Instead of just a few issues to focus on, just about every Domestic Relations issue one can imagine was tested in this essay.
- The issues involving capacity, contract, support, ante-nuptial agreements, and divorce were numerous, not always straight forward and very dependent on one another.
- A student still has only 36 minutes (not a change).
Question 8 in the Afternoon Session was a mix of torts, ethics, contracts, corporations, and, just for the heck of it, criminal law. This poor lady who used to be the VP of a corporation has everything in the world happen to her in the above-mentioned essay question. She is recruited by another corporation, told she must steal the secrets of her old corporation “or else”, she calls the lawyer of her old corporation who doesn’t care what she does, she calls her own boss who threatens her, and once she gives the information to her new boss, the new boss fires her and then both bosses attempt to defame her in all sorts of ways. Of course our poor ex-VP gets depressed, drinks too much, the bartender makes her take a cab home, and the cab driver has a record. And, just to make things more tragic for our victim, she ends up getting beaten by the cab driver. But wait, you want to hold the cab company responsible since they never checked the cabbie’s record, but alas, the record is based on speeding, not beating passengers. And the bartender…poor guy was just trying to be a good guy, wasn’t he? So what to do with all of this? And only in 36 minutes?
Question 3 in the Morning Session was another issue-laden essay involving just about everything that can be tested in a property essay. For starters, a student must understand that MA is a title theory state, and what that means. Then, they must also discuss:
- Everything on easements (express, implied, prescription, merger, written)
- Mortgages and the laws of foreclosure, what happens with recording and the difference between Subject to and Assuming the mortgage
- Equitable Servitudes and Restrictive Covenants
- Fraudulent Conveyance and After-acquired title
- Impact of Title Theory on all above issues
One must note, every property issue in this essay seems to depend on how one analyzed the issues before that. And the seventh issue may be dependent on the first issue, which may or may not affect the outcome of the third issue (if you could even find the third issue). It is not just the numerosity of the issues, but the complexity in the ways that they are tested that has significantly changed in the last couple of years. So, you know, perfectly doable in 36 minutes right?
Lastly, Essay Question 1 in the Morning Session should make law schools in Massachusetts seriously consider making First Amendment a significant portion of their Constitutional Law Class (1st Amendment is often offered as a separate class and not part of the curriculum in a “regular” Constitutional Law class. In fact, some schools do not require constitutional law at all). It is not just this bar exam: Massachusetts LOVES the First Amendment, especially in the context of a school setting. I have this listed as the most highly tested Constitutional Law topic in Massachusetts since 2002, with equal protection (especially in the context of affirmative action) following as a not-so distant second. But I have seen the First Amendment come up more in the last few years than ever before, and it seems like it is always going to be a hot topic. On the bright side, this is way better than getting stuck with, say, the Habeas Corpus question they tested once or the Eminent Domain question tested another year.
The Massachusetts Bar Exam has changed. So what? Well, take California for instance: nobody has ever called California’s bar exam “Passachusetts” (not just because it doesn’t rhyme). California’s exam has always been extraordinarily hard to pass. 30% pass rates are no surprise. And Florida, for example, has always had those maddening Florida- specific multiple choice questions that could be based on seven topics, but always on four for sure, and sometimes on the other three. But regardless of their difficulty, students know what to expect.
The Moral of the Story: Massachusetts is an evolving exam, and, as evidenced by this summer’s exam, it is not evolving into something that makes life easier on law students. Hence, it is crucial that bar programs designed to teach to the Massachusetts’ Bar Exam evolve with it, or else our students will find themselves in a difficult disparity between what they might expect and what they actually get on exam day.
The bar exam has many recent law school graduates anxious and befuddled, but before you become unglued, pick up this nifty book by Tania N. Shah and Melissa A. Gill entilted What NOT to Write. This writer was asked to review this book and given a copy, and was delightfully surprised by how easy it was to read what can otherwise be viewed as very dense material.
This particular edition is geared toward the Massachusetts Bar Exam, but New York is also available (review to come), along with an edition for the California Bar Exam.
The book includes “real essays, real scores, real feedback.” It begins with an introduction to the Massachusetts Bar Exam—the format, tested areas, how it’s graded, and even includes a section on how to effectively answer the essay questions. The latter is essentially the “meat” of the book: reading the fact pattern(s), outlining, and writing the essay answer, along with specific time-management strategies. Name of the game? Spot the issues!
The book explains that the Massachusetts bar essay exam consists of 10 questions, and examinees have six hours in which to answer: three hours in the morning for fact patterns 1 through 5, and three hours in the afternoon for fact patterns 6 through 10 (no wonder this author witnessed Texas bar examinees after the bar exam last summer walking around dazed as if in a war zone!).
Shah and Gill remind readers, therefore, that examinees must, in the space of 36 minutes for each question, “(a) read a fact pattern one- or two-typed pages long, and (b) construct a three- to four-page [cogent] written answer to that question.”
The book is then conveniently divided into sections for the different topics bar examinees will find on the exam: torts, constitutional law, evidence, secured transactions, property, criminal procedure, and many more—nineteen actual questions (i.e. fact patterns) are included. Readers can therefore start from the beginning, or move immediately to an area of interest (or concern!).
Remember these are actual bar exam essay questions with actual bar exam answers, which begin with the highest ranked, at score 7, to the lowest ranked, at score 1. Following each actual bar exam answer is an area for your own notes or answers, comparison notes, and the authors’ analysis. Their comments range from the general such as “the examiners have to read thousands of essays, and the quicker and more succinctly that you can demonstrate your knowledge of the law, as well as the ability to apply it, the better” (16), to the specific, such as “give the general law, and THEN the specific law…it is always best to start with your black-letter law…you will not get a 7 if you do not apply the law” (20). [Emphasis mine.]
Other great tips from the authors include:
- “You always want to include a statement of governing law so your grader knows exactly what area of law you are going to talk about.” (27)
- “Always raise the claim, THEN the defense.” (49)
- “The MOST important part of a bar exam essay is the analysis because it lets the bar examiners know you are proficient in practicing law, not merely memorizing rules and coming up with a lucky guess for a conclusion. Anyone can memorize rules of law, but it takes a lawyer to know what to do with them.” (54) [Emphasis mine.]
The book was a collaboration between LawTutors’ President Tania N. Shah and Vice President Melissa A. Gill, not to mention those fearless bar candidates who selflessly shared their actual bar exam answers so the rest of us might learn from their successes or mistakes.
LawTutors is, according to its website, “a radically innovative, personalized system that ensures constant support, mentoring, contacts and confidence. You will study smarter, not longer, by having an individual Attorney Instructor custom design a study program built solely around you, focusing your efforts precisely on those areas you need to study.” You can read more about LawTutors, sign up for their newsletter, or even peruse free articles such as “How to Study for Exams.”
When Ms. Shah was asked why law students might benefit from LawTutors, she responded:
“LawTutors takes into account the fact that all students do not learn the same way: some are visual, some are audio, some learn by examples, others by analogies. The list goes on, yet sometimes students feel forced into a learning style that does not fit them, and they are made to feel that they somehow ‘don’t get it.’ We want them to know- they wouldn’t be in law school if they didn’t have the capacity to ‘get it.’ It is just that we all ‘get it’ in different ways, and the way each student learns should be maximized rather than thwarted.”
This writer also queried LawTutors’ Vice President Melissa Gill as to why law students might need this book. She replied:
“Students are often faced with unobtainable sample answers when looking through most essay books, wondering how they can possibly write that much in the allotted time, or spot that many issues. Our book gives students a look at what actual bar takers write in the allotted time, and what the bar exam graders scored those essays. Our book shows students what IS obtainable in the allotted time, and guides them through how to get there!
As for LawTutors, it is different because it gives both law students and bar students an opportunity to work one on one with an experienced tutor, and depending on learning style, some students need that individualized feedback. We also focus on HOW to study, so that students build the necessary skills to study on their own.”
After reading this neat little book, Massachusetts bar candidates can confidently say “Bring it on Massachusetts!” (This writer strongly believes that even other states’ bar candidates would benefit from reading this book.)
For more info: You can read more about the LawTutors team here.
To order the book, visit the LawTutors’ site at www.lawtutors.net or visit the publisher’s site here.
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Sami K. Hartsfield, ACP is a freelance writer and paralegal in Houston. She holds a degree in paralegal studies with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor of science degree in political science, graduating summa cum laude. Sami interned with Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals under Chief Justice Adele Hedges, and completed the University of Houston Law Center’s Summer 2008 Prelaw Institute. She is preparing to enter law school in the fall and holds a national advanced paralegal certification as well as six specialty certifications: Discovery; Trial Practice; Contracts Management; Individual & Entity Medical Liability; and Social Security Disability Law. You can find her on Facebook and e-mail her with questions, comments, or ideas at LegallyBlog@yahoo.com.
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