Unless you’re in one of the “frill” courses (essentially a term coined by Justice Scalia for seminars), one final exam is likely to determine the grade in your law school course. Many law students go through the first semester of law school wondering what the exam is going to look like and trusting that doing the reading and listening to the professor will get them a good score. In 99.9% of cases, this is not going to be a successful strategy. In order to adequately prepare for the exam, you should start outlining by the end of the first full month of classes. But before you even begin to outline, you need to understand what you’re outlining for, so you know what to emphasize. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
If you were in the social sciences in college, your exams generally asked you to “comment on the causes of the 1905 Russian Revolution,” “assess our moral and ethical duties to future generations,” or “argue for or against Samuel Huntington’s thesis in The Clash of Civilizations” (or maybe this was only the case if you were in my classes). While these questions appear relatively difficult (and they are for graduate students), answering them on a college exam was pretty straightforward because you just needed to memorize everything the professor said in class about the topic and then write it all down in a Blue Book as fast as you could. This is about as far as you can get from a law school exam.
In law school, exams require you to apply rules that may only appear tangentially related to the questions asked. Say an exam gave you this story:
Bob and Joe work together and are good friends. At lunch, they usually go to one of the burrito shops near the office and gossip about their coworkers. One day during lunch, Bob confessed to Joe that he had been planning to kill Susie in HR. This confession troubled Joe because he knew that Bob’s anger problems were legendary, but Joe was shy and didn’t want to get involved in such a personal matter, so he never told anyone about what Bob had said. The next day, Bob killed Susie.
Does Susie have a claim against Joe?
If after reading this story, you’re thinking to yourself, But the professor never told us about Bob, Joe, and Susie during the semester, then you’re probably still in the college exam mindset. Law school exams do not ask questions that can be asked by repeating what the professor has said in class. The professor has never told you the stories that appear on exams.
Think back to your torts class. You may remember reading a case called Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California. In that case, the California Supreme Court held that a therapist may have a duty to warn an identifiable person when he knows or reasonably should have known that his patient presents a danger to that person. But what do a therapist and a patient have to do with two coworkers who like to go out and get burritos together. Well, nothing actually. That’s not the right question to be asking. The question to ask yourself is what the rule from the Tarasoff case has to do with this story.
In the story above, Joe knows that Bob is planning kill someone, and he knows that someone’s name is Susie. This is basically what happened in Tarasoff. There, the doctor knew that his patient was planning to kill someone, and he knew that patient’s name was Tatiana. Now, doctors and patients aren’t the same as coworkers, so this ambiguity is exactly where you need to focus your analysis. Tarasoff says that a doctor has a duty to warn because of the special relationship between the doctor and the patient or the doctor and the victim. A special relationship is one that is characterized, inter alia, by the sharing of intimate details and a responsibility to take care of the other person.
Does Joe have a special relationship with Bob or Susie? Joe and Bob go to lunch and feel comfortable enough together that Bob was willing to confess to Joe, but Joe and Bob don’t seem to have any sort of responsibility to take care of each other. Does Joe have a special relationship with Susie? This is really unclear. The story above doesn’t actually say anything about the relationship between Joe and Susie, so we’d need more facts to answer this question. This is OK: sometimes exam questions will not give you all the information you need, and you will have to explicitly acknowledge this fact in your answer.
Don’t worry if the exam writing process seems confusing. Law school exams are very different from any sort of writing that you’re likely to have done before. That’s why it’s crucial to start practicing early.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Practice For Exams in Law School
- 4 Steps to Managing Law School Material
- Need Help Outlining for Law School Finals?
- Tips for Surviving Law School Exam Stress
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