Although understanding the substance of how to take a law school exam is the most important key to performing well, there are plenty of other things that a law student needs to keep in mind to help make sure everything goes right on exam day. These are the law school exam logistics: mostly procedural matters that will potentially impact your law exam grades. Because grades are everything in law school, especially during 1L, you have to keep your eye on the prize and do only those things that will help you on exam day. Everything else is a distraction. Of course, you will not find law professors, the registrar, or anybody else in law school taking the time to actually teach you any of this during orientation or throughout 1L because it’s all mostly about hiding the ball. This way law students enter the exam confident they know what they actually do not know in order to better help sort the class into appropriate class ranks. The few will know what to do, but for most this stuff will come completely out of left field. By the time most students learn most of this during 2L and 3L year, the importance of grades largely falls by the wayside. This is why knowing this ahead of time is a huge deal, and can help you immensely on exam day.
1. Focus on exams from day 1
As soon as you enter orientation, your thoughts should be focused on nothing more than the exam at the end of the semester. That is the only thing that determines your grade. You should approach each class from afar, keeping a world map view of the course from week to week to see how the professor is structuring the class and to better understand how all the particular topics fit together like a puzzle. This not only makes sure that you do not get lost in the details, a common pitfall, but it enables you to focus on what is actually important for the exam. Listen to the professor and how he teaches each particular topic, and write it down the same way in your notes. You should be able to zero in on his or her way of analyzing the course topics and issues so that you can replicate that on the exam. Remember, law professors are humans and they will at least subconsciously react to an exam taker’s analysis positively if it agrees with the way they would analyze the issue.
2. Policy is crucial
Regardless of whether your law professor loves policy or hates it, it is the centerpiece of every piece of law on this planet. Each law is structured a certain way because the people who put that law in place wanted to achieve a particular result. Understand why each law you learn has become what it is, and you will be able to get much more creative with your arguments on exam day. This is something many law students completely ignore unless the law professor mentions he or she likes policy. This is a mistake. Even if the professor does not really care for policy, understanding the policy behind each law you learn will give you ample ammunition to argue both sides on the exam because you will be better equipped to talk about why a particular law does or does not apply in any scenario. If you read the cases that are assigned, you will be hard pressed to find an opinion that does not dive into some form of policy analysis. Usually the first thing a case discusses is the applicable legal standard and the policy behind it. For example, in torts when you cover Palsgraf there is a dichotomy between Andrews and Cardozo over the duty element of negligence. There is a reason why Cardozo analyzes the case under the duty element and why Andrews automatically assumes duty is always there and focuses on proximate cause. They both have a different vision over when plaintiffs may receive redress, that is policy. That is what makes the law. Understanding both of their views from a policy perspective makes the law make sense, and makes it second nature. It becomes much more obvious on a fact pattern to make arguments because you are not simply parroting the law, you understand the root of why a rule is the law.
3. Do not outline on reading days
What almost always happens is law students decide to kick outlining into high gear the last week of the semester and into the reading days. You’ve already lost. Outlining is a way for you to remember the important aspects of the class and should begin midway through the semester. With a month left, you should have your outline up to date and have a firm grasp on the material you have already covered. This way you are able to begin what really matters: doing hypotheticals. Hypotheticals replicate the nature of the law school exam because they are fact patterns that implicate the legal rules you have learned and force you to apply the law to the facts as you analyze the issues. You should be doing this the last month of classes. Whether you are making up hypotheticals once you know the law or are using supplements, this should be a staple to get you practicing and applying the law. Once you start doing this, knowing the law becomes automatic. You may also start to read ahead to get an even better grasp on the course and its content in its entirety. Ideally, by the time you are entering the last week of the semester, you should be doing full out practice exams. These will be your professor’s exams, but other exams found online obviously can serve as practice as well. The point is that by the time most of your peers are scouring around to “outline” the course material, you are already hammering out practice exams routinely. Practice makes perfect, nobody cares about the law if you cannot apply it.
4. Do not treat an open book exam as any different than a closed book exam
Some students see that their law professor allows an open book exam and decide not to memorize and learn everything ahead of time. This creates the potential for tragedy and is a common trap laid by law professors. Your books and outline will not serve you well on the exam when everybody is in a time crunch to finish. Of course, there is nothing wrong with structuring an outline in a way that helps with efficiency on the exam. For example, structuring each class topic based on the rule, issue, common arguments, and tips, all of which are meant to help with the analysis portion of the exam as you follow along and type your answer. There is also nothing wrong with referring to the outline if you do not remember something immediately and need a reminder. However, the outline cannot be used a crutch. It should be used as a final resort in almost all instances. This entire point should actually be moot if you execute #3 above, but it is useful for those who learn about all of these logistics late.
5. Do not run the clock to finish an answer
The law professor will almost always tell you what each part of the exam is worth on his or her grading scale. You should use the time allotted for each specific portion, but if you find yourself running behind, just move on to the next question. For example, imagine the exam is 3 hours and is split into 3 questions, each an hour long and weighing the same amount. If you are 2 hours into your exam and you still need to keep working on question 2, you should stop immediately and move on to question 3 unless you are legitimately finishing up the last sentence or two of your second answer. There is absolutely no reason to waste more time on question 2 if you will potentially lose points on question 3 because you ran out of time due to delay in getting started on the third question. Begin question 3 at the 2 hour mark and gather up all the easy points. If you are able to finish question 3 before time runs out, go back to question 2 and add to it. Often law students make the mistake of losing out on easy points on question 3 because they cannot get over not finishing question 2. This spills over into potentially rushing question 3 and losing out anyway. It’s often a tough call depending on how much is left to do, but if they are worth the same you should not use up more than the allotted time. What you probably do not write deep into question 2 will be offset by what you do gather up on question 3. To put your mind at ease, you are not shooting to get 100% on the exam. Far from it, you are only shooting to get more points than your classmates. If you are having trouble with finishing, the vast majority of your peers have the same problem. Do not get bogged down, this is all curved in the end. Pick up the pace if you can, but don’t fall behind.
6. Organize your answers
This may seem obvious to some, but in a time crunch law students often forget to structure their answers and simply ramble on for eternity. Everybody gets caught up in the belief that these exams are impossible to finish and try to vomit the entire outline and course onto the exam. Do not do this, it is not necessary. Read the fact pattern, identify the issues, think about your answer for a few minutes, and begin writing clearly and coherently. This does not mean write at a snail’s pace, but you have no idea how much more punch you can pack into a few coherent and well thought out sentences than into a paragraph of rambling. The professor appreciates clarity. You do not want to lose points because he or she is unable to read something in your answer or worse, misses it in between all the nonsense. If you identify an issue, give it a proper heading and discuss it in paragraph form. Then, give another issue a heading and discuss it underneath. Headings are a very efficient way to signal to the professor you have spotted the issue without having to write out a few introductory sentences. For example (contracts): “Did A make an offer?” If that is your heading, clearly the issue is presented and your answer will go immediately into the rule and application of facts. This saves you some much needed time and ensures the professor will be aware of all of your major issues. Remember, you are given a chaos of facts in the fact pattern, and by applying the legal rules to the facts you are to establish order to the best of your ability. This includes the ability to structure everything coherently. Writing a treatise is unnecessary.
On a very related note, sometimes there is an obsession among law students over word count. There is a belief that higher word count correlates with a chance at a higher grade because the more words you are able to type, the more issues you may coincidentally spot, causing you to get more points. This makes very little sense. The mere fact that a student is typing much more than someone else does not in itself make that extra content relevant for the purposes of scoring points. These exams are indeed very often time crunches, but that’s because it is very unlikely that any student can reach the professor’s ‘perfect’ answer. There are usually much more issues in a fact pattern than any student can spot within the allotted time. However, students will not spot all these issues not only because there is a limited amount of time to do so but because there may be many issues that they were never even taught. The professor has more knowledge than you, of course he or she would be able to raise and analyze more issues. What matters for your purposes is that you try your best to identify and analyze as much of the issues you were taught as you can in the time allotted. Because it is the analysis that is the key on any exam, packing a punch through relatively coherent and succinct answers that spot the issue and apply the law to the facts is more efficient at achieving this goal than throwing out your outline onto the exam and hoping something extra sticks. This is not easy to do in the moment, but again, practicing will drastically help. Many professors establish word limits for precisely this reason.
7. Outline your answer
Without infringing too deeply into any particular student’s thought process and exam strategy, often students are afraid of not finishing an exam on time. This causes them to enter panic mode when the exam begins and to begin typing an answer immediately to the detriment of fully grasping the fact pattern in front of them. This causes a domino effect where the fact pattern is not fully understood, or something is missed, and it throws off the entire answer when it is mixed with the word vomit. If a fact pattern is to take 1 hour, the law professor does not expect students to write out massive essays for 60 minutes. What is expected is a firm understand of all pertinent facts in the fact pattern, and the application of those facts to the issues that they create. It is often advantageous to take 10 minutes at the start of each question to read the fact pattern thoroughly once or twice, identify all the main issues, and outline the potential analysis of the issues and potential conclusions (identifying the stronger side) before beginning to type. You will notice that when you have analyzed much of the answer mentally and spotted much of the relevant analysis over the facts your answer will not only be much clearer but you will be able to more concisely handle your analysis. It is much easier to type out a perceived answer than it is to create an answer as you are typing. This is tough for some students to do because they cannot get over the fact they have a limited amount of time, but trying this on practice exams may ease the fear. It works.
8. Do not miss the forest for the trees
It is great to know the little things that may be considered “extra” goodies, for example, in the notes following cases, but do not lose sight of the big picture. Sometimes students try to impress the professor thinking they will memorize and know all these little extra things that may have been mentioned in passing, but take away from analyzing the big issues that the professor expects every student to know. Always focus on the big things, as they are worth the most points. If you can throw something extra into the analysis along the way that is great, but do not focus on that thinking it’ll give you brownie points if it makes you lose sight of the integral components of each question.
9. No argument is too attenuated
Your role on the exam is to get creative in your analysis by coming up with potential arguments either side would argue. As you do this, it demonstrates to the professor you are knowledgeable about the law and can apply it properly to any given situation. What this also means is that no argument is off limits. Even if it sounds ludicrous in your head, jot it down on the exam. You never know what may count, and it is better to have the professor make that decision rather than you. For example, in contracts no matter how good a contract may seem there is always the chance to at least mention unconscionability, even if in passing. Someone is stuck in a car after an accident in torts? Throw out false imprisonment. That these types of arguments may seem ridiculous on their face is irrelevant, the point is that in making and dispelling them you show the professor a greater knowledge of the material.
Law school exams are no breeze, but they are not unconquerable. Keep the big picture in place and focus on what your professor teaches. Supplements are useful if you need to brush up on a particular legal issue but understanding the way the professor teaches the course is the key. Identify what the professor likes, understand what your game plan is from the very beginning, and do only what matters for purposes of the exam. Practice, and practice some more. Do not let your peers psyche you out, or hype things up as their paranoia sweeps the halls of your law school. Focus on the task, and know that law professors cannot blind side you with anything if you put in the proper work throughout the semester.
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