Despite its prominence as the first letter in IRAC, issue spotting doesn’t get much attention in the law school classroom. Legal writing has an entire class devoted to it, legal analysis is practiced daily through case briefing and in-class dialogue, but rarely, if ever, are students allowed to practice spotting miscellaneous issues from long fact patterns the way a final exam requires them to.
Unlike case briefing, where the range of potential issues is confined to a narrow range of topics, final exam issue spotting requires you to pick out issues from complex fact patterns that have the potential to cover a wide range of testable issues. Although issue spotting is essential to exam success, students often fail to see its importance until after they’ve had a disappointing finals experience. Don’t make that mistake! With a few simple strategies you can improve your issue spotting skills and be fully prepared to tackle finals!
Knowledge of the legal rules is the key to being able to spot issues quickly, accurately, and under stressful exam conditions. The legal rules are what make facts important and what trigger issues, so you simply must know the rules cold. Make a good outline, draft clear rule statements, and put some serious effort into memorizing and comprehending the legal rules.
Anticipating how the issues will be tested by your professor on a final exam is also crucial to improving your issue spotting skills. Truth be told, there are only so many ways to test most concepts. The more hypos that you review and the more practice problems you read the more likely you are to see similar scenarios in the final exam fact pattern. Anticipating how concepts will be tested and seeing the type of facts that typically trigger an issue will make spotting those same issues much easier come exam time.
Creating an issue checklist (aka skeletal outline, aka attack plan) is probably one of the easiest but most valuable strategies you can use to bolster your issue spotting abilities. The issue checklist not only gives you the big picture view of the class, but it makes the issues you need to look for obvious. Dump your checklist on scratch paper right after the exam starts and refer to it throughout the test to make sure you haven’t forgotten to look for and address any major issues. Check out this post for more information on how to create an issue checklist: Wonder What an Attack Plan Is?
Last, but certainly not least, you must practice issue spotting by working through actual practice problems that have the long, comprehensive fact patterns you’re likely to see in a final exam. As you’re reading the fact pattern, circle every fact that may be relevant to a legal rule or concept. These facts are potential issues that need to be addressed in your response. Keep in mind that professors generally don’t include a lot of irrelevant facts, so if you haven’t circled very many facts you need to go back through the problem and look for any additional issues. Some issues will be obvious but others will be subtle, so take care to pay attention to the details. Once you’ve circled as many issues as you can, write out an analysis of each, being sure to identify facts that support both sides of the issue when appropriate.
Issue spotting is a challenging skill to master, but it’s one that’s crucial for law school success (not to mention bar exam success). Don’t make the mistake of overlooking this important skill until it’s too late. Start practicing your issue spotting skills now to ensure they are fine-tuned by the time final exams roll around.
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