Most law school classes are graded using one final exam. Understandably, this causes a lot of stress. Moreover, given that students are exposed to the same lectures and readings, I have often wondered how professors differentiate between papers that mostly look the same.
Here are my ideas for how to differentiate yourself on an exam. My suggestions fall into two big categories: form and substance.
Form: Writing the exam
Law school exam writing is very different from essay writing. Generally, there is little expectation to have a perfect structure or for your sentences to be crisp and elegant. When I was a 1L, many upperclassmen explicitly told me not to worry about typos (unless the word or sentence is completely unreadable) or minor grammar mistakes. Just keep typing, they said. Of course, this expectation could shift. For example, if the professor gives you a word-limited exam with a generous time allowance, or suggests that you outline fully before writing, or gives explicit instructions about how to write your paper.
Bear in mind that the professor has to read stacks of exam responses on the same subject. As the writer, you should try to make your reader’s (and grader’s!) job easier. Here are some things to bear in mind:
1. Organize and outline
After reading the fact pattern, you might be overwhelmed by the different characters, facts, and ambiguities. Take some time to collect your thoughts. Understand the big picture and how each element fits into it. What topic(s) or subtopic(s) is the question testing? Are these “new frontier” issues that existing doctrines have not yet addressed? Are there obvious (or not-so-obvious) analogies to and differences from the cases you’ve studied?
Then, put your thoughts into an outline. The amount of detail is an individual decision. Personally, I like mine longer, jotting down all my initial thoughts and unresolved questions. As I do this, I scan the fact pattern, circling or underlining crucial facts to support the arguments I am considering.
2. Time management
Figure out how much time to give to each question or sub-question. Sometimes professors recommend a time allotment; other times you have to figure it out for yourself. A good rule of thumb is spending the amount of time that corresponds to the weight of the question. My practice at the beginning of the exam is to write down the times (ex. 2:30pm, 4:05pm, 4:25pm) by which I should finish each answer and move on. This saves me the time and effort of calculating whether X number of minutes have elapsed.
2. Be succinct
As you put pen to paper, try to be brief. This is important for multiple reasons. First, it makes your response more readable. Your professor, who is very familiar with the doctrines and cases, just needs to know that you understand how they operate and apply to novel situations. There’s no need to spell out the legal test, all the factors involved, or the case(s) that established it and the relevant facts. Identify the element(s) that would be disputed in the fact pattern, show the back-and-forth arguments of the parties, and give your opinion about the most likely resolution. Get in, get out. Second, the more concepts you discuss, the more points you’re likely to grab. Third, related to time management: being brief leaves you time to add to and refine your response at the end of the exam. This also avoids rushing through the last part of your response, thus giving it a shorter shrift than it deserves.
Substance – Hitting the points
4. Understand how your professor thinks
Throughout the class, you will gradually understand what your professor’s thoughts are concerning specific cases, the courts’ approaches, and the policy arguments behind the law. Whenever I hear the professor refer to a belief or opinion, I always write it down and use a symbol to indicate “professor.” I also incorporate these nuggets into my outline. I am not suggesting that you pander to your professor–and I know that most professors welcome different views in their classrooms. But these are good points that you can use to support a party’s arguments. They also inform how you believe the dispute would, or should, be resolved.
5. Get used to arguing both sides, and make use of practice exams and model answers
Law school exams are usually issue spotters, where you are expected to make all the possible arguments (although some ask you to assume a role). Prompts are actually written in a way that it is unclear which side wins, although there are usually equity or policy concerns that tip it one way. So, it is crucial that you feel comfortable arguing both sides. A lot of it is intuition, but there is skill involved too. I believe that doing practice exams is indispensable to honing your argumentative skills. Professors will make past exams available to you, or your school may maintain a database. Study past exams and successful student responses. These are great resources to help you practice applying all that you’ve learned to a new—often wacky—situation. You can also find out what points you had missed from reading other students’ approaches.
6. Use the facts and note what is missing
The fact pattern is just that—numerous facts woven into a story. A lay person reading it would not think about the relevant legal issues. But you are armed with doctrines, cases, class discussions, and a handy outline. As you write, consider every possible and relevant legal scenario arising from the facts. Would party X consider this action voluntary or not? Would party Y find these actions reasonable? A great tip from a classmate is to cross out facts that you have used in the response; at the end, the fact pattern should be mostly striken-through.
Also, state your assumptions. The fact pattern will not give you everything. Sometimes the professor is testing students on what additional information is needed to make an argument or ruling stronger. It might be a situational fact, an understanding of a character’s traits, empirical data, or public policy. If you are using something outside of the fact pattern to bolster an argument, make that assumption clear (and if needed, explain why the assumption is reasonable in this situation.)
7. Provide a judgment
Your task is not limited to finding every potential issue. A lawyer’s value to their clients is the ability to weigh all the information and provide a judgment (often couched in “it is likely that…”). In other words, argue why Issue A is more important to outcome X than Issue B, or why outcome X is preferable to outcome Y in light of the precedential value rather than ruling for the underdog. There is rarely a right answer; you just need to back your judgment up.
Exams, especially when they serve as the sole assessment for a grade, are extremely anxiety-inducing. I hope that my tips will help you feel more comfortable with this crazy exercise. Let me know what you think!
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