successive narrowing example

Bar exam prep for essays: successive narrowing

When writing essays for the bar exam, bar review students should get in the habit of using “successive narrowing,” both in how they think about issues and in how they address issues.  This article seeks to introduce the basics of successive narrowing and its benefits.

Successive narrowing

Here’s a simplified “decision tree” diagram demonstrating successive narrowing in the context of a bar exam issue.

successive narrowing example

successive narrowing example

As shown, the first step is to identify the body of law in which the given issue falls (e.g., torts, criminal law, contracts).  Then move to the next-broadest layer (i.e., the layer that is immediately narrower) of issues.  After that, move to the next-broadest layer of issues, and so on.  Proceeding in this stepwise fashion, the bar exam essay writer successively narrows the issue from the broadest layer (what body of law) to the narrowest layer (perhaps elements of a cause of action, or even particular issues that arise within the context of a given element).

Essay writing in the successive-narrowing form

Each layer should get its own heading.  When a “freestanding issue” arises, i.e., an issue that does neatly fit into the decision tree, break that issue out, put a heading into the essay at approximately the point where this issue arises, and discuss it as any other issue (ideally, in classic ILFAC form).

Benefits of successive narrowing when writing essays

By disciplining oneself to think in terms of broadest to narrowest, one can significantly improve one’s issue-spotting ability.  Ask yourself questions along the lines of:

  • Is there a layer that’s even broader than the one I’m working on now?
  • Is the issue I’m working on now a subset of some other issue? (for instance, we may have jumped right to “battery” without first discussing “intentional torts”)
  • Is the issue I’m working on now one into which other issues fall?  (for example, while working on the “person of another” element in the illustration above, we may realize that we need to go on to discuss what “person of another” means or includes)

Beyond issue-spotting, successive narrowing also helps with the writing process itself.  Discussing issues in this manner feels easy—which is good—because it’s a logical way to proceed.

Moreover—and perhaps most importantly—reading and grading a bar exam essay written in the successive narrowing fashion is easier than one that proceeds haphazardly from one legal issue to another.  And easier grading produces a happy—indeed, grateful—grader.


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Bar Exam Prep: Augmented Reading

Maximizing the “return on investment” of solitary study time

While time spent in passive activities, such as attending a bar review class or meeting with your bar exam tutor, is beneficial, the reality is that most of your bar prep time will be spent alone.  This alone time will, for the most part, comprise reading, writing, and test-taking.  Maximizing the return on investment—the “ROI”—of this time calls for, among other things, creating the right study environment.

Disrupted reading

Reading comprehension can get derailed when a person encounters a word that she doesn’t fully understand, even with respect to the words in the given passage that she does understand.  It’s as though that one gap disrupts the entire mental apparatus required for effective reading comprehension.  This disruption may occur because the reader loses concentration, or experiences an increased sense of anxiety, or doesn’t feel certain about how to mentally “file” the remainder of the passage in the absence of the missing information.  Whatever the reason, this disruption is bad for one’s ROI.

Augmented reading

In order to avoid such disruption, LEX recommends that all bar exam study be performed in an “augmented reading” environment.  Some aspects of an augmented reading environment—good lighting, for example—are covered elsewhere; the present article focuses on the presence of other materials in one’s environment during the reading process.

In particular, when a person is reading bar exam materials, such as bar review books pertaining to torts or contracts, one should always have the following items within arm’s length, i.e., literally “within reach” so that you can stretch out your arm and pick them up:

  • a recent hard copy of Black’s Law Dictionary, or equivalent
  • a recent hard copy of Merriam-Webster Dictionary, or equivalent

Presence and proper usage of these resources will allow you to offset the reading-comprehension disruption discussed above while also allowing you to move boldly through the material in confidence that you’ve “got backup” when you need it.

NOTE:  a physical copy (“hard copy”) of the above two dictionaries is highly preferable.  Electronic, and particularly web-based, dictionaries are much less desirable. Reading comprehension for electronic publications is lower generally, and looking up something in such a resource is itself disruptive, particularly if the given resource also includes a bunch of clutter (advertisements, etc.).

Process for Augmented Reading

When reading your bar review materials, each time you encounter a “regular” word—i.e., one that has no special meaning in law, is not a “term of art” for law—that you do not fully recognize, stop right then and there (at the end of the given sentence) and look that word up in your Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  Even if you just feel a little “shaky” on the meaning of that word, look it up.  Study the definition until you’ve “got it” and then return to reading, either at the beginning of the sentence that included the word, or, if you’ve lost the context, at the beginning of the paragraph in which that word appeared.

Similarly, any time you encounter a legal word—one that does have a special meaning in or occurs exclusively in law—that you don’t fully recognize, look it up in your Black’s Law Dictionary and follow the process as described above.

Through augmented reading, you will improve the return on investment of your study time: better reading comprehension, better retention of what you’ve learned. You’ll also decrease any anxiety you may experience while studying.  And you’ll also increase your vocabulary along the way—always a good thing for people entering a word-intensive profession like law.