If you want the best possible law school grades, it’s really important when taking class notes, when outlining, and when writing exam answers to take into consideration what your professor thinks is important.
Why? Well, the professor is the one who writes the exam! And it is likely that if the professor covers something in class over and over again — then he or she is going to think it is important enough to test on exam day.
Are Professors Just Writing Random Stories?
But frequently students forget what the professor is up to when he or she writes the exam. As a professor, when you write an exam hypothetical, you typically have in mind the major legal issues you want to be triggered by the facts.
Why can’t a professor just write some sort of random story? Well, it is unlikely a random story would be a very effective testing tool! The professor’s goal is to get a standard answer from most students in order to effectively grade the exams and in the end distribute the results on a curve (I know, we all hate the curve in law school).
What Should You Be Looking Out For?
So when you read a hypothetical, should you be just reading it like a story or should you be reading it while keeping in mind what your professor is asking you through the facts? Hopefully, you recognize it is the latter.
Let’s look at an example together:
Steve is driving down the road and sees a parking spot on the other side of the street. Instead of waiting for the intersection to turn around, he makes a radical U-turn in the middle of the street (because finding a parking spot in San Francisco is serious business). Steve is driving a rental car so he is unfamiliar with its turning radius. That causes his car to jump up on the sidewalk and hit a fire hydrant.
Water shoots out of the fire hydrant’s left side and the water hits Paula, a pedestrian on the sidewalk. The water hits her in the face and goes into her eyes.
It turns out that Paula has a serious eye allergy to unfiltered water and her eyes immediately swell up causing her to trip and fall down hitting her head on an old television set that had been left on the street by Bill (with a sign that says, “FREE TV”). After this injury, Paula has recurring migraines and mountains of medical bills.
San Francisco has a traffic ordinance that prohibits making U-turns in the middle of the street.
Does Paula have a cause of action against Steve?
So this fact pattern covers negligence.
But take a moment to think about the facts. What facts did I include to raise legal issues? Or to create factual ambiguity?
Why Did Things Happen this Way?
Think about it for a second:
Why did I decide that Paula should be injured by the fire hydrant and the TV set and not by Steve’s car?
If you think about the rule for negligence per se, generally, it is that in order to prove a case you must show:
- that there is a criminal statute
- that the act caused the kind of harm the statute was designed to prevent
- and the plaintiff is a member of the statute’s protected class.
So just the fact that Paula was hit by the water should raise a few issues of ambiguity.
- Is the harm of the type that the statue is designed to prevent?
- Is Paula a member of the statute’s protected class?
Why does the fact that she was hit by water create ambiguity?
- Well, first, the statute is one relating to traffic violations and she wasn’t hit by a car. She was hit by water.
- Second, Paula wasn’t in the road, she was on the sidewalk.
How to Handle Ambiguity
You are going to need to argue the different ways that these facts could be interpreted.
But do you see why — as the professor writing the exam — I didn’t just say Paula was walking through the parking spot when Steve hit her? Because that wouldn’t have tested your ability to think like a lawyer. It’s too easy. Lawyers deal with the hard stuff.
What Other Facts are Important?
What about other facts from the fact pattern?
- The fact that she has an eye allergy?
- The fact that she hit her head on a TV set left on the street?
As an exam taker, you want to put yourself in the position of the professor and ask yourself:
Why did the professor include that fact? What does he/she want me to talk about?
Answering these questions is only going to make your answer stronger and more of a reflection of what the professor is looking for.
And what’s one of the best ways to learn more about how your professor thinks? Go to office hours!
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Does this make sense to you? Leave questions in the comments and Lee will get back to you!
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