Dr. Kirsten Schaetzel, a linguist and our Emory Law ESL specialist, has written this excellent advice that will help all bar-takers, not just those for whom English is not a native language. The bar exam will play tricks on you; awareness and practice will help:
“Pay attention to trigger words!
Bar questions, both multiple choice questions and essay questions, often contain words that may seem insignificant, but instead carry much legal meaning and usually have an impact on the answer you choose or the answer you write. We call these words “trigger” words because just like the trigger on a gun, these words have an impact! When you pull the trigger on a gun, a bullet shoots out; when a question contains a trigger word, it has an impact on the way you interpret a situation. Some bar questions may have more than one trigger word.
Trigger words concern time, place, and manner (the way something is done). These usually have a legal impact. Examples of triggers are:
- Adverbs, such as immediately, recklessly, accidentally, quickly, severely
- Negatives, such as not, does not, did not, and prefixes such as il- (illegal), im- (imperfect), in- (inhospitable), and un- (unconscious)
- Descriptive qualifiers, such as a person’s age, any physical limitations, gender, familial or business relationships
- Dates, distances, and times (may be clues to causation and statute of limitations)
- Place, such as country, state, county, city (may be clues to jurisdiction)
A few examples of trigger words in sample MBE multiple-choice questions are listed below (http://www.ncbex.org ):
- The man has “Beware of Dogs” signs clearly posted around a fenced-in yard . . .
- The neighbor was attached by one of the dogs and was severely
- A major issue is whether the train sounded its whistle before arriving at the crossing.
- A daughter was appointed guardian of her elderly father . . .
- The sales agreement did not mention the shutters, the buyer did not inquire about them, and the buyer did not conduct a walk-through inspection of the home before the closing.
Notice the underlined “trigger” words and think about the impact they have on meaning.
As you read the prompts for multiple-choice questions and the fact-patterns for bar essay questions, keep your eyes open for trigger words and phrases!”
Thanks, Dr. Schaetzel! I recommend, in this final stretch of bar study, doing as many practice MBE questions as you can and use “active reading” by underlining or circling trigger words and other key words on the questions themselves. This will remind you to notice them on the real bar exam (and you should underline or circle them on the real questions too). Time will be tight — you can streamline your pace of answering questions by practicing now how to focus on the essentials.