The classic law school exam is an issue spotter, which tasks students with spotting and resolving all the legal issues in a large fact pattern. However, I have noticed that some professors also like to change up the issue spotter or use additional exam formats like multiple choice or policy questions. For each type of questions, there are different skills and strategies for success.
There are three main tasks with an issue spotter: (1) spot as many legal issues as possible, (2) write a succinct and comprehensive analysis, (3) arrive at a conclusion (even if qualified by words like “most likely,” “may,” etc.).
It is critical to work fast and manage your time well. Keep in mind that everyone is allotted the same amount of time. In order to stand out, you need to spot more issues, conduct better analyses, and arrive at more insightful, and of course correct, conclusions.
During the exam, create an outline before you start writing out the answer. This will help you stay organized and prevent you from missing issues. Assume that every fact is relevant and work backwards to figure out the issue that it bears upon. One tip I have gotten is to strike through every fact that I had used; at the end, the fact pattern should be largely crossed out. Of course, leave time at the end to ensure you did not miss anything.
Preparing an attack outline—a short, around 10-page, document that lists factors, decision trees, and other quick reference tools—is critical. Aside from assisting in your analysis, it will help you notice what assumptions or extra facts are needed in order to strengthen your argument, which will help you earn more points. Some students also prewrite rule sections.
Practicing your typing speed will also help. Issue-spotters, especially when without a word limit, are often described as typing tests. Some professors recognize that this is not the fairest way to evaluate performance, and opt for word limits to decrease stress and encourage students to prioritize quality over quantity. Still, being efficient is crucial, and pushing yourself to type quickly will give you more time to outline, think, and review.
Sometimes, professors vary the issue spotter. First, they may ask you to assume an identity: as a judge, a judicial clerk, or an attorney. Think about the unique concerns for each role. For example, a judge may care about judicial legitimacy and procedural efficiency, or have a view about judicial activism versus constraint. A discussion of these ideas indicate your sophistication on the issues, and will especially benefit your grade if the professor had brought them up in class. Second, the professor may ask you to respond to specific questions from a client. In this case, focus on the task at hand, and only bring up other issues if they are related or help inform the analysis.
Finally, don’t worry about style or grammar of your writing. Leave typos alone unless the word is unrecognizable. The important thing is that you get your ideas across.
Multiple Choice Questions
These questions may seem easy, but many students find them to be just as challenging, if not more, as other question types. Think LSAT questions: some choices are easily eliminated, but the remaining ones are very similar or differ only in degree. Of course, the difficulty depends on the professor.
Familiarizing yourself with the course materials is only a baseline. You should attempt multiple choice questions from the professor’s past exams. Look for patterns on what is usually tested: facts in cases, legal rules, hypotheticals, etc. Strategically focus your studies on those elements. Moreover, you can use supplements that include multiple choice questions for practice. You can also write your own questions!
These questions pose a policy issue: a controversial topic in the news, a longstanding legal policy debate, or a new policy proposed by a make-believe government. The scope varies, but the main task is to explain your position on the matter. This is a time to express your opinions and support your arguments.
Your professors will give you a sense of what they are looking for. If not, ask. Generally, they want to see that you understand the major themes and discourse within the subject. In preparing, make note of the ideas that your professor had brought up in multiple contexts throughout the course, such as tensions between two concepts, the impact of courts’ approach on society, etc. Include these as policy arguments in your outline. When appropriate, refer to cases that illustrate your point or present undesirable examples.
It is critical to discuss the counterpoints. Give your opponents’ strongest contentions and then use logic and empirical arguments (rather than ad hominem attacks) to demonstrate their weaknesses. In the alternative acknowledge the flaws in your position and propose ideas to help address them.
Otherwise, there is much more room for creativity here than the traditional issue spotter. You can focus on theory or practical applications; you can cite recent news stories or write about personal experiences. As long as you are responsive and persuasive, the professor will not penalize you for a position that he or she disagrees with.
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