Legal Education

Thanks to email error, those taking California bar exam now know essay question topics

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When California bar exam test-takers received an email July 27, listing the topics to be covered on the upcoming state bar exam, many of them thought it was a hoax.

It turns out that email, which was sent by the State Bar of California, was legitimate. The State Bar of California annually invites a rotating group of law school deans to attend a bar exam grading session—after the bar is administered—and that communication accidentally went out to 16 law schools July 25, five days before the exam starts, according to a press release from the state bar. The state bar does not think any of the 16 deans disclosed the essay question information, but “out of an abundance of caution and fairness,” it decided to share the topics with everyone taking the two-day exam, which starts Tuesday.

The essay question areas will be civil procedure, remedies and constitutional law, criminal law and procedure and professional responsibility and contracts, with the performance test focused on writing an objective memo on evidence, the bar wrote in an email, Above the Law reports. The state bar told the Recorder that it will launch an investigation as to how the mistake was made.

Most law school academic services professors don’t think that the disclosure will make much of a difference for test-takers taking the bar exam July 30 and 31.

“There’s just not enough time,” says Mario Mainero, a law professor at Chapman University, which has locations in Irvine and Orange, California. His work focuses on academic achievement and bar preparation.

Rodney Fong, associate dean for academic achievement, institutional assessment and bar preparation at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said people taking the California bar exam this week will be better off focusing on their approach to preparing for the topics listed, rather than trying to learn additional rules based on essay question topics.

“As we know, simply memorizing the rules without knowing how to apply them is not helpful,” says Fong, who previously worked at the State Bar of California as director of its legal services office. “If takers didn’t understand or know how to apply them by now, it would be very difficult to learn those issues in a day or so. Instead, it might lead to extra frustration and anxiety.”

Knowing general subject matter topics for the essay questions could help people who “are on the bubble” between passing and failing, and the disclosure is useful for freeing up brain space, says Pavel Wonsowicz, who directs the academic support program at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

“Instead of having to memorize a thousand rules, students only have to memorize 750 rules because they took four topics off the table,” Wonsowicz says. “If your mind was really trying to remember what the rules are for a will in California, you can hit delete now.”

However, people still studying for the July 2019 bar exam might want to stop at this point.

“Suppose you’ve worked up a perfect answer and studied it, then you go in, you studied all night, you’re tired, you aren’t thinking well, you can’t remember things and you get nervous because you can’t remember what you want to write,” says Kurt F. Geisinger, an educational psychology professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

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