Law school exams can often feel completely untethered from what your entire semester seemed to be about. You may have spent a week of Torts learning an unabridged history of Learned Hand’s eating habits, only to discover during test time that all you were supposed to take away from those lectures was that P x L must be greater than B to impose negligence liability.
So many students struggle with knowing what exactly they’re supposed to be tracking in order to be fully prepared for exams. Everyone buckles down in their own way in the weeks leading up to finals. Some students go the outline route, while others pick more visual approaches. There is no one right way to study for written exams, (though there is also no substitute for honing your application skills through writing practice). But the exam preparation can actually start long before the few weeks between Thanksgiving and finals. It can even start as early as the first day of class.
In order to process readings and lectures with your future exams in mind, here are three things you want to track throughout the semester:
I came into law school envisioning “the law” to be some kind of well organized, numbered list we would be handed as we walked through the door. I did not fully anticipate that it would be a mushy, evasive, completely made-up series of holdings that we would then have to distill into a articulable, doctrinal statements.
Most of you will be doing some variation of IRAC in your exam writing (unless your professor prefers that you don’t – it’s worth finding out!) Think about that rule section. Often a three-hour lecture can be boiled down into one doctrinal “Takeaway” that will formulate the basis of a future rule statement. So much of what we’re trained to do as lawyers is mine legally significant points from a morass of information. Class is a great place to practice that skill.
Whether your professor takes a more meandering route or offers clear, concise Power Points for every lecture, it’s up to you to distill the Takeaway for that particular class. Start plugging those into your outline, flashcards, flow charts, or whatever it is you’re using to capture information that you can use to shape your future rule.
Precedent isn’t developed in a vacuum. Procedure doesn’t operate in silos. Most of what you learn in class will be part of some kind of sequence, in which different cases, statutes, decisions, and approaches connect with each other.
For example, when I was putting together my outline for 1L Civil Procedure, my Rule 8 section not only covered the law for Pleadings, but had a little box at the end – as did every section of my outline – that looked like this:
Keep in mind: Supplemental Jurisdiction, pleading standards, preclusion, joinder, Rule 12, Interpleading, Joinder, Interrogatories, Admissions, Amendments, Original Pleading (how π crafts claim affects how ∆ crafts response)
I didn’t need to write out a novel about how everything was connected – I just had to remind myself that it was. This let me anticipate how issues might be tested together on the exam, and also added more comprehensiveness to my exams, because I could see the bigger picture of how the issues we learned about intersected with and impacted each other.
So, make sure that you’re tracking the throughlines between classes and concepts, and incorporating those Connections into your notes. That way, you’ll not only be able to understand the law in a more holistic way, but you’ll also be able give a nod to more testable issues when you are issue-spotting your exam facts.
Most professors will return to a number of themes throughout their teachings. Many Contracts professors will ask the class to consider how much paternalism a court should incorporate into upholding defective agreements. Torts professors may unpack the legal fiction of ‘reasonableness’ over and over. Civil Procedure professors might focus on access to justice issues, while Property professors tend to spend a lot of time in The Commons. Whatever your professor’s Policy theme of choice, these are not to be ignored just because they aren’t straight up rules.
So, get into a habit of highlighting these policy themes within your notes. You could even literally highlight them, using a color-coding system in which every “green” section in your notes means that a corresponding policy theme is in play. That way, when it comes time for exams, you’ll know to pair a particular policy discussion with a particular issue. This will show your professor that you’ve been paying attention, not only to what they’ve been teaching you, but to the way they want you to learn what they’ve been teaching you.
Remember to Start Early!
Documenting these Takeaways, Connections, and Policies throughout the semester will help you avoid rifling through fifteen weeks of notes and wondering what the class was all about. As long as you’re engaged in an ongoing practice of bolding, highlighting, underlining, or sectioning off your Takeaways, Connections, and Policies, you’ll already have some of the key ingredients for a stellar exam answer as early as the first day of class.
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