A Handy Template for Answering “Hard” Law School Exam Questions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat’s the first thing most law students do when they get to the a “hard” part of a law school exam? No, not cry (most people do that after the exam). The average law student starts drawing conclusions.

If you think about it dispassionately, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Why would you jump right to a conclusion, when you know the analysis is difficult? Um, there’s your answer. If it’s hard to do the analysis, it’s tempting to skip it! (Who really likes doing hard things?)

Why This is a Bad Idea

Writing conclusory answers to hard questions is a bad idea for several reasons:

  1. Professors really hate it. Put yourself in the shoes of your professor. You’ve spent a lot of time writing a fiendishly difficult exam, and you’re feeling pretty proud of it. You read the first answer, which is going okay on the warm-up issues, then it gets to the really hard stuff — the stuff you’re particularly pleased with — and says “Clearly Plaintiff has no claim here.” WTF?!? Seriously? You’re going to skip the good stuff and tell me that “clearly” the potential plaintiff has no claim. I hate you! C+. Next!
  2. You don’t get very many points for drawing the right conclusions. The point of a law school exam isn’t to get the “right” answer. At best, that gets you maybe 10% of the points. Two students can both get As, and end up with different conclusions on close questions (trust me — happened with two TAs I know). The points are mostly in the analysis. If you want to break it down, it’s probably something like this: issue (10%), rule (10%), conclusion (10%), analysis (70%). If you skip the analysis and jump to the conclusion, you’re leaving A LOT of points on the table.
  3. It’s more obvious than you think. There’s something odd about an unsupported conclusion — it really attracts attention. If you’re reading an answer, and someone says “Clearly plaintiff has no claim,” what’s your first reaction? Mine’s to ask “Why?” If there’s no answer to that Why?, it’s very, very obvious that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Not a great impression to leave!

So, the next time you find yourself on an exam writing that something is “obvious” or “clearly” the case, STOP and ask a question: Is this really so clear cut?

If not, deal with the ambiguity, and your grades will improve markedly.

A Template for What to Do Instead

Here’s a template for one way to approach difficult issues. It’s in IRAC format, because lots of professors like that, but you can modify at will.

Steps to go through for a “hard” question:
  1. Identify the issue (The key fact is…)
  2. State the rule and how this scenario is different (Because Plaintiff wasn’t touching the briefcase, Case X doesn’t apply directly.)
  3. Analyze each side of the argument (Defendant will argue… Plaintiff will argue…)
  4. Decide who wins AND explain why (X is likely to win because…)

Pretty simple, right?

Any time you’re feeling panicked, you can fall back on this template. The most important element is #3: “Defendant will argue…” then “Plaintiff will argue….”

If you can make both sides of the argument clearly, with reference to the appropriate legal and factual ambiguities, your conclusion hardly matters. (Yes, you still want to draw a conclusion, and give a good reason after the “because,” but if the question is legitimately difficult, it’s probably a close judgment call about which way the case will come out, so either way is okay.)

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Similar posts you might like:

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Do You Need to Write Out Practice Exams?

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Got questions? Leave them in the comments!

Image by mzacha via stock.xchng.


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About Alison Monahan

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School, which helps law students and prospective law students get in to law school, get through, and stay true to themselves. Alison is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where she was a member of the Columbia Law Review and served as a Civ Pro teaching assistant. You can find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS.


  1. Legal analysis is more than simply identifying facts that matter on an exam. The writer must demonstrate what it is about the facts or what can be inferred therefrom to show why the rule, element, or standard does or does not apply. Also, the couching of the statement as “A will argue, B will argue” can still be conclusory if the reasoning is not supplied. The fact alone that one side will argue it does not make it any more complete.

    • Alison Monahan says:

      Absolutely! However, I would argue the mere act of writing out each side’s arguments will encourage students to think that they might want to do the analysis. In any case, it’s a necessary first step.


  1. […] In a nutshell, to break the "too conclusory" habit, force yourself to write down the arguments and counteraguments from each point of view. Yes, it can be tedious but it's what you have to do. Here's a handy template. […]

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