You read cases, you outline cases, you discuss cases, and your outlines feature cases. But despite the seeming focus on cases throughout your semester, how do you work cases into you exam prep? It can be a tricky question and one that can make or break you come exam day. Here are some things to consider as you decide how to factor cases into your exam prep —
It Depends on the Course
Like all questions in the law, the answer to how much effort you should put into studying cases is that it depends. You should determine how much attention to give cases in your exam prep (and your exam answers) on a course-by-course basis. Here are two primary factors in that calculus —
One factor to consider is that subjects differ. Some subjects are more case-law driven and naturally rely more on cases. Criminal procedure comes to mind. When U.S. Supreme Court cases are essential to understanding Fourth Amendment concepts, you will be hard pressed to make it through an exam without having a working knowledge of the particular cases. On the other hand, in a commercial transactions class, understanding concepts and the interplay of statutory provisions could mean cases are largely irrelevant to exam success.
A second key factor is the professor. It’s always important to know your audience (and who wrote the exam). If your professor loves deep dives into cases and warns you that she likes to see concepts bolstered by case examples and arguments rooted in case law, listen. If your professor wants you to think like a lawyer and focuses on hypotheticals, that may be an indication of what will be important on the exam.
Don’t Overdo it (but you can’t ignore them)
It can be tempting, especially if you aced undergrad by sheer determination and memorization to think that memorizing case facts and holdings will be your road to law school success. Knowing the cases you read and discussed in class may be necessary, but it is far from sufficient. Law school exams are not about memorization. The key is to understand concepts, not memorize history. Flashcard makers beware—you can miss the boat if you try to make and master a flashcard for every note case you see all semester.
But on the flip side remember that cases aren’t just examples. Much of the law develops through jurisdiction-based case precedent. In law school, cases are used at times with no regard for jurisdiction, but the idea is to learn how to apply case law. Professors want you to understand that arguments must be grounded in the law—be it a statute or a judicial opinion. Because cases underlie many of the more academic concepts you learn in law school, acknowledging cases makes sense and may naturally come up during your exam.
How Do You Absorb the Law?
Do cases help jog your memory? In study group, when a hypo is read, is your natural response, “oh, this is like that one case we read…” For some (myself included), having an on-point case in mind was always tremendously helpful. Linking concepts to cases can be a way to use those good facts, e.g., the famous hairy hand, to recall the concepts, elements, or rules. If you find that investing time in learning a case name to mentally hang a concept or exception on helps you, embrace that. Too many people are scared away from using cases to their advantage if the professor says you won’t get any extra points for citing case names on the exam. Factor that grading information into how you study, but don’t be afraid to use case names to help you digest, retain, and apply the law.
If cases don’t seem to help you much, pay more attention to what the professor requires and don’t force the issue. Play to your strengths. The bulk of law school exams will not be determined by abstractly reciting case names or facts. Focus your preparation on what will help you personally.
Prioritize Your Precious Study Time
Striking the balance between not overdoing it and not ignoring cases can be tricky. In law school, time is always precious. Of course it would be great if you could master the black-letter law, master the case law you read over the semester, master hypothetical applications, and spend the last week before the exam reviewing your outline and getting a good night’s sleep. No law school exam prep ever went that way for me. Usually it is a caffeine fueled sprint to exam day while juggling exam prep for three other exams. You have to prioritize your time. Unless your professor is an outlier, case names should not be a top priority. It is great to drop a relevant case name to support your argument, but generally it won’t be make or break for you. So if you are running out of days and the decision is to make a stack of case flashcards or get through the substance of the course and work hypotheticals, you need to know the law rather than the case support.
Law school exams are demanding. They force you to apply law to facts, abstract concepts to concrete fact hypos. Knowing your cases won’t do the analysis for you, but cases can serve as guideposts and shorthand ways to express your knowledge. Be intentional about your exam prep when it comes to cases—consider their value, prioritize your studies, and get to studying!
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