The Bar Exam Is Brutal, But the Founding Fathers Can Help

The bar exam is next week. Next week. That's soon. Like, really soon. Like, so soon it's basically tomorrow, so maybe I should quietly freak out and bang my head against this wall right here but not so hard that I break the wall. Because that would be bad. It might even be a crime, like "battery of the brain in the first degree," or a tort, like "intentional infliction of cranial distress." Are those real things? I should look at my thousand-page outline. No, no, I should bake a tart, because that's kind of like a tort only yummier, crumblier and no one's getting sued...

The bar exam is a total mind bender, as this fictionalized but highly realistic glimpse into the brain of a typical bar studier reveals. Over the course of two or three days, law school graduates need to answer hundreds of essay, multiple choice and other questions about dozens of legal topics. They may not be interested in any of the areas of law the bar tests, and they may never practice in these areas. They nevertheless need to master these subjects well enough to pass -- or they won't become licensed to practice law. You know, just that little thing they went to school to do. No big deal.

As a professor who works with recent law grads preparing for the bar exam, I see firsthand how the minds of bar exam studiers can play tricks on them. Minds work in mysterious ways, convincing studiers that they don't know all the things they really do know or can't do all the things they've been practicing for months and can actually do just fine. In particular, studiers often freak out about writing bar exam essays. They feel like there's no way to say something meaningful in just a few short pages using the standard bar exam essay answer formula: IRAC.

IRAC stands for "Issue, Rule, Application (of Rule), and Conclusion." When bar exam takers write IRAC style, here's what they're doing:

  • Identifying the ISSUE -- that is, the problem at hand, which is typically someone wanting to do something she's not sure she is allowed to do or wanting to get out of doing something she may be required to do;
  • Stating the RULE -- the law (or set of laws) that controls the answer to this type of problem;
  • Going through the APPLICATION of the rule to the important facts of the problem; and
  • Coming to a CONCLUSION about what the law requires be done to solve the problem.

Sound complicated? The IRAC format itself is pretty straightforward. Here's an example of IRAC in action in everyday life:

  • ISSUE: I want to drive my parents' car to the liquor store and buy beer for my friend Kevin's party, "Bar Exam 2015";
  • RULE: But state law says you have to be 16 to have a driver's license and 21 to buy alcohol;
  • APPLICATION: I'm only 15, which is less than 16 and way less than 21; SO
  • CONCLUSION: It's against the law for me to drive my parents' car or buy alcohol. Apple juice for everyone!

No need to call a lawyer there. But bar exam takers face much more complex questions regarding legal subjects from assault, bankruptcy and commercial transactions, all the way through to zoning -- and everything in between -- all in a tight time limit.

At this stage of the studying game, with the bar exam a week away, studiers are frustrated and in need of a little inspiration. So here it is: IRAC can be done, and done beautifully. Our nation's birthday earlier this month shows us how. If you break down the Declaration of Independence, you'll see what our forefathers were up to those many score years ago: IRAC-ing in uncharted territory, where the stakes were high and the rules ill-defined (revolution not being an everyday occurrence).

Here's how the Framers IRAC-ed us to independence, in just a few short pages:

  • ISSUE: We want to do our own thing and not belong to England anymore, but the King won't let us go without a fuss. ("When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .") So we're going to explain our argument for why we should be free from him. ("[A] decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.")
  • RULE: All people (Read: wealthy white men) have core rights that come from a power higher than England or any government. ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .") So when a government becomes tyrannical, the people have the obligation to get rid of the bad government and form a new government. ("[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations . . . evinces a design to reduce them [people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right . . . to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.")
  • APPLICATION: Now we're going to list everything the King has done that proves he's violating the "Rules" set out above, that he's a despot, and that we need to change the guard. ("The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.") The King has been an unrepentant !*(*!(#! across the board, especially because he hasn't let us have a say in the taxes we pay, hasn't let us have jury trials, and has "plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people." #micdrop
  • CONCLUSION: We've asked very nicely, but the King won't stop. ("In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms...") So we're taking matters into our own hands, with some help from above: "We... appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do... solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of Right out to be Free and Independent States."

Of course, it wasn't quite from IRAC to the ears of the "Supreme Judge"--a revolution took place far from the written page. But bar studiers should take heart: the scores of practice essays they're writing now, as well as the ones they'll write next week on the exam itself, spring from the same family tree as this founding charter. They may be distant cousins, but the family resemblance is unmistakable.

So for all you bar studiers out there saying that you can't possible do sophisticated legal analysis in an IRAC-ed essay that's only a few pages long, I submit the IRAC-ed Declaration. Of course, the Framers had a little more time (and more colleagues) than you do on the bar exam, but at heart it's the same process: what's the problem, what law controls, how does the law apply here, and what result should take place? Then BOOM (to quote a sound more familiar on July Fourth than IRAC). You're done. Go celebrate your own Independence Day!