Can people pass the bar exam by luck?

Can people pass the bar exam by luck? This is Rosemary E. Williams' answer to this question, revised and reformed in order to fit the context of the Philippine bar exams. Rosemary works at Rochester, NY. The question was answered on June 21, 2019.

I’ve been a bar grader on the essay portion, and have taken and passed my fair share of bar exams. As a general rule, more than half the people taking a given bar exam will fail, even if they have taken a bar previously. This is a [one-month] endurance contest [actually, six months if the pre-bar review is considered or at least four years and six months if counting from the first day of law school] requiring the applicant to be able to analyze, argue and write under pressure of exhaustion and time constraints. I graded essays where the applicant (and the grader never knows whose paper is whose) couldn’t spell “attorney” and didn’t know the difference between a plaintiff and a defendant. Luck will not save those people. Learning to identify relevant facts and organize an argument for or against a given point will.

Unlike practice, where a client will tell the lawyer a lot of irrelevant things, the facts given [xxx] are presented [almost] without distraction. The structure is pounded in: identify the issue; state the rule applicable to the issue, analyze and argue the issue, and state a conclusion. [This is called] IRAC method. So, the tools to pass are [already] available.

Everybody gets the same question in the same area. Everyone has an equal access to the tools. The applicant, however, has to be able to recognize a legal issue and blend the facts and the law into an argument or analysis. That’s what reading all those hundreds of cases in law school is supposed to teach. She/he has to demonstrate at least a basic knowledge of the settled rules of law governing a given point, and weave that law and the facts together in an analysis or argument. The conclusion should be obvious from the former, but even a incorrect conclusion is acceptable if it is supported by the IRA part.

Remember that the bar exam is not a lottery. The [people who build] the test intends that everyone have a fair chance of passing, and [work] hard to draft questions where luck is [mostly] not a factor. If a given answer is not given a passing grade, the reviewer is to write out the reasons why. That paper then goes to a second grader, who takes a completely independent look at the paper. Only if the second reviewer also writes a reason for failure will it go further. Every reviewer is given a model answer to measure the paper by, so everything that can be done happens to help the person pass a given question.

The difficulty is not at the level of the bar exam; it is in the schools that do an inadequate job of first separating out people who are never going to be able to manage to pass the bar and guide them into other professions where they can be successful, or in the alternative, do a far better job of preparing people for the bar. Law school is not easy; no graduate level school is, but especially in the professions. Would you want a medical doctor who just went to a degree mill to get licensed?

There are even mock bar exams to use for practice. Anyone entering law school should already be familiar with the process of exams since [entrance exams are usually] one [of the requirements] for admission into law school in the first place. The whole process is intended to help people who “freeze” or otherwise have addressable difficulties with exams. Only one day is essay; the others are multiple choice. There, failure generally identifies a lack of understanding of basic principles of law. That is only going to be worse in the essay part because there is no using suggested answers for help.

The only help for the essay part is hours and hours of study and work. Practicing law is important to society, and it is not supposed to be easy because people’s legal rights are at stake.

If you look at the pass/fail rates of bar exams to see what students come from which schools that contribute the most numbers to those who do not pass, that says something about where the some of the problem may be. But, it also may be that there are those students who just don’t have the temperament for the grind of study and work necessary to come to understand the legal principles involved. For those people, money spent on law school may well be wasted. It takes both a school that delivers on its promises of training, and a student who is willing to give up [4-7] years of life to become a licensed attorney. If either of those two parts don’t happen, the results are likely to be unhappy, but not as unhappy as turning untrained people loose on the public would be. Remember, law school is at the graduate level; by then, a student is supposed to know how to study, how to think, and how to analyze and argue at the graduate level. (Read more: Rosemary E. Williams, 2019. Can people pass the bar exam by luck? Answered June 21, 2019.