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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