Unfortunately after attending a full semester of classes, taking copious notes, and reading and briefing cases, the single determination of your success in a law school course boils down to a few hours. The few hours you will spend taking the examination for your law school courses will generally determine your grade. Although some professors will promise extra credit based on in-class participation, these discretionary points are only a small fraction of the points that make up your grade.
The subject being tested and the professor will primarily determine the type of examination that is administered for each course. Generally, law school exam questions are in one, or a combination of, the following forms: (1) essay, (2) multiple-choice or (3) true/false. Your approach to answering these various types of testing methods will differ.
To help separate you from the rest of your class we have developed Law Preview’s Top Ten Exam-Taking Tips. These pointers offer some pretty straightforward advice that many students overlook. I encourage you to review them several times as you are studying and at least once before each exam.
1. Know Your Audience
The foundation for success on law school exams is to know who is grading the exam. Your mission is to make that person’s life easier. You will find that professors enjoy the free time available in the academic profession (e.g., holidays, summer vacation) and grading essay exams takes away from this free time. Students who remember this and do everything possible to make grading easier will invariably benefit from their efforts. A few hints for making your exam answers easier to grade are:
A. Be neat, be very neat. Even though your professor is getting paid to grade your exams, you are guaranteed to generate resentment if he/she is forced to decipher your chicken scratch in order to get through your answer. Print, do not write your answers in script and, if you have really bad penmanship (and you type faster than you print), take the exam on a laptop.
B. Write your answer on every other page of your answer book. This generally makes an answer easier to read and allows you to go back and make additions to your answer if necessary.
C. Answer the question using outline form. Number and clearly identify each dispute you frame and use numbers or letters to list elements contained in the rules you apply.
D. Walk into your exam with at least three obscure points your professor discussed in class and try to work one of them into your exam answer. This is one sure way to distinguish yourself from your classmates and to keep the professor engaged when reading your exam.
E. It’s okay to use shorthand, but always remember to use a key at the beginning of your answer. If you are using abbreviations for actors in the fact pattern (e.g., “P” for Plaintiff), or other words (e.g., “K” for contract), don’t assume that your professor will know what your shorthand means.
2. Identify & Frame Disputes
Trying to read and answer an exam hypothetical as a whole is like trying to consume a 16 oz. Porterhouse in one bite; it is impossible, and causes many students to choke. Successful students deconstruct the fact pattern and break it down into individual disputes that they analyze in their bluebooks.
A. First identify the opposing goals of each party. Professors draft fact patterns that create present (and sometimes future) disputes between parties. Someone is aggrieved and others are possibly to blame. Professors test their students’ knowledge of the law by having them identify those legal theories that might entitle an aggrieved party to some relief. The types of disputes you will encounter often depend on the subject matter of the course. Consequently, it is helpful to focus on the opposing goals of each of the parties. Generally, one party who feels aggrieved by the actions of another will petition the court to redress that injury and the other party will argue against the remedy — your objective is to first determine the goals for both parties to the dispute.
B. After you have identified the goals of the parties to the dispute, you must identify the legal theory (or theories) each party might assert to accomplish its goals. It is at this point that many students experience frustration. After a semester of studying, students expect the legal theories to literally jump off the page. What they fail to comprehend though is that legal theories spring from factual elements. By identifying elements scattered throughout the fact pattern, top students are able to piece together legal theories and defenses that further the parties’ interests.
As you read the fact pattern, understand that every word may have legal significance. Carefully sift through the story and ask yourself, “Why is this fact here?” “What is the significance of this date?” and “Does the relationship between the parties have any importance?” While scouring the fact pattern, compare each fact with your mental checklist of key elements that trigger certain legal theories. Once you start looking for elements, the legal theories become evident. For this reason, a mastery of the elements (e.g., black-letter law) is critical if you want to excel.
C. Once you have identified the parties to the dispute, their goals, and the theory the initiating party will assert to achieve its goals, it is time to frame the dispute. A framed dispute is a question that contains (1) the parties to the dispute, (2) the goal of the initiating party, and (3) the legal theory that the initiating party will use to accomplish that objective. For example, a torts dispute might be framed as: “Whether Consumer can successfully assert a products liability cause of action against Manufacturer and recover money for her injuries?”
Notice that by framing the dispute, the examinee now has a question to answer where one did not exist before. By framing the various disputes using the legal theories that the parties may assert to achieve their goals, students have taken the first step toward identifying issues the professor wants analyzed.
It is important to note, however, that framing the dispute does not necessarily mean you have spotted “the issue.” When resolving disputes you will encounter points of disagreement about whether the proffered legal theory will resolve the dispute. Each point of disagreement represents an issue that needs to be addressed by argument from the parties. So, issues spring from disputes and, just like smoke signals a fire, if you are looking for issues (fire) you must follow the disputes (smoke). If there is no disagreement (i.e., the opposing party has no arguments against the application of a legal theory), then the dispute itself is the issue.
3. Argue Both Sides of Legal Issues You Spot
If you have sought exam-taking advice from upperclassmen in law school, you have undoubtedly heard, “all you have to do is ‘issue spot.'” While partially true, this truncated advice offers very little guidance for most students because it assumes that they know what an issue is, and how to spot one. Most egregiously, this advice totally fails to address what students should do once they spot an issue.
Issues are legitimate points of disagreement between litigants about whether or not a particular legal theory governs their dispute. An issue arises when there exists an arguable question about the strength of a litigant’s claim for relief — one party literally “takes issue” with the other party’s theory, and makes arguments opposing its application. Most simply put, an issue is the weak spot in a plaintiff’s claim or in a defendant’s defense — it is the point on which the success of the legal theory hinges and it is where the parties will concentrate their arguments in an effort to prevail in the litigation.
Chaotic fact patterns rich with ambiguity create these “close calls” — doubts about the applicability of a legal rule. The confusion that hypotheticals often create, make it near impossible to spot discrete legal issues without first understanding the parties’ general conflict; therefore, you must always first frame the dispute (#2 Above). Once the dispute has been framed and a legal theory has been asserted, it is easier to identify problems surrounding the theory’s application — to spot the issues — as well as to detect the arguments that each side can make in support of their position.
In some cases, your job will be relatively easy. You will identify a theory or cause of action that a litigant might assert, list the elements of the cause of action, and discuss the factual arguments that each party will use to establish those elements, or to imply that one is missing. Other times, disputes might require more sophisticated legal or policy arguments. No matter the complexity of the issues you encounter, you must become familiar with each of these argument types and be prepared to make a case for both positions.
4. Answer the Question Asked
Before you read the given fact pattern, read the question and determine what role the professor is asking you to assume. Are you Defendant’s attorney or do you represent the Plaintiff? Are you a judge trying to resolve the dispute? While this may seem logical, the fact is that many times students miss the question being asked. Although you may receive credit for ancillary information provided in your answer, you will only receive maximum credit if you answer the question that is presented. When answering multiple-choice or true/false exams, it is important not to get caught focusing on unrelated questions that may be contained in the question, but which is not what is being asked. An important factor to remember is the subject being tested. While the question may present a Criminal Law issue, if you are being tested on Torts, answer the Tort question.
5. Read the Facts Carefully
After you have analyzed the question being asked and determined your role, read the hypothetical fact pattern in its entirety first. This will give you an understanding of the entire story. Then, go back and re-read the question in order to identify the parties who may be in dispute. Thereafter, focus closely on the facts provided. Do not assume facts not given and don’t simply make up facts. Applying the law to the facts presented is critical. While this is an important tenet for all types of exams, this advice is even more critical when taking true/false and multiple-choice exams. Changing the facts, even slightly, could result in a completely different result.
6. Beware of Timing
You do not have to write a perfect answer to receive a top grade. Law school exams are scored on a curve, so it’s the “best,” not a “perfect” answer that receives an A grade. If a fact pattern raises twenty issues that merit discussion and you only fully analyze ten, then you will still receive an A so long as your classmates only discussed nine or fewer issues. As a result, your goal is simply to score more points than anyone else. This requires speed in identifying issues, a quick recall of the applicable legal rules, and clarity in communicating your analysis.
With so much to do in such a short amount of time, effective time management is imperative. Many times simply finishing the exam is enough to distinguish your answer from those of the majority of your classmates. Professors rarely ask students to budget their own time on the exam and will typically assign time guidelines (or point allocations) for each section of the examination. In order to receive full credit, you must stick to the recommended time limits. The most common mistake students make is to ignore the professor’s time recommendations. Many students will “borrow” time from later sections of the test in an effort to write the most complete answers to earlier sections.
Exceeding the allotted time on a particular section is a flawed strategy because it deprives you of the opportunity to achieve full credit on later sections of the test. Moreover, perfection on any single question is not your goal. Remember, given the time constraints it is virtually impossible to write perfect exam answers. You simply want to write an answer that, as a whole, is better than those of your class-mates. The proper strategy requires that you give sufficient time to each question so that you do not miss the opportunity to accumulate easy points on later questions.
Do not be misled into thinking that more impressive answers to the earlier sections of the exam will convince the professor that you have mastered the law and, therefore, are more capable than your less-than-perfect answers in later sections demonstrate. Grading in law school is purely objective, and most professors adhere to rigid grading formulas that allocate points based on certain anticipated responses. Professors will not assume that based on your earlier answers that you would have successfully answered unfinished sections. To do so would unfairly penalize those students who followed the time recommendations and completed the exam, but did not write the most complete answers on earlier sections.
Effective time management requires that you first determine how much time you have for the entire exam. You should ascertain this information from your professor well before exam day, and you should confirm how much time you have by reading the general directions usually set forth on the front page of your exam booklet. Next, quickly flip through each section of the examination. If the professor provides recommended times for each part, add up the minutes and compare it to the total time for the exam. Occasionally, a professor will provide students with extra time (e.g., when the sum of the recommended time from the individual parts is less than the time allotted for the entire exam). It is helpful to know before you start whether you have additional time to spend as you choose.
If instead of providing time recommendations, your professor assigns points to each section of the exam, you should total the points for all the sections and then divide that number into the total minutes you have for the test. This formula allows you to convert those points into minutes. For example, suppose you have three hours (i.e., 180 minutes) to answer three separate sections worth 10, 40, and 50-points respectively. You should spend eighteen minutes on the section worth 10-points, seventy-two minutes on the 40-point section, and ninety minutes on the final 50-point section. By converting points into minutes, you will maximize your ability to manage your time.
This macro time management step should take no more than one minute. After all, the last thing you want to do when you are trying to manage your time is to waste it.
7. Organize Your Answer For Each Dispute You Frame
Remember, you want to write an exam answer that is easy for your professor to read. You do not want your professor to have to wait until the final page of your blue book to truly appreciate your legal acumen. Instead, you want take the reader by the hand and take them threw each issue individually — always telegraphing your knowledge of the rules and your analysis.
We recommend that your analysis of each dispute follow the DRAC method. DRAC is an acronym for four words: Dispute, Rule, Arguments, and Conclusion. The DRAC method operates as follows:
A. After you open your exam booklet, the very first thing you should write down is the first framed dispute you intend to analyze. As set forth more fully in Point #2, supra, your framed dispute is a question containing (1) the parties to the dispute, (2) the goal of the initiating party, and (3) the legal theory that the initiating party will use to accomplish that objective. Your framed dispute is a one-sentence paragraph that tells your professor the problem you will analyze.
B. Next, directly below the framed dispute you should recite the black-letter law of the legal theory the initiating party will rely on (as set forth in your framed dispute). The purpose of this paragraph is to demonstrate to the professor that you know the relevant law. When writing the rule, number each of the elements. Numbering elements will: (1) make your answer easier to grade, and (2) provide you with a checklist of elements that the initiating party must prove to support its theory. Like the Dispute section, your recitation of the rule can be a one- or two-sentence paragraph.
C. Next, directly below the Rule section, begin your discussion of the various factual, legal, and/or policy argument(s) that the initiating party will use to establish the elements of its legal theory. Use separate paragraphs for each argument type. Then, analyze the factual, legal, and/or policy argument(s) that the opposing party will make to argue against granting the requested relief.
If the opposing party can assert a defense, begin by starting a new paragraph that sets forth the elements of the defense (another Rule section) and then follow up with separate paragraphs for each of the arguments the opposing party will use to show how those elements have been satisfied. Finally, analyze the factual, legal, and/or policy arguments that the initiating party will make in response to the asserted defense.
D. The conclusion section is typically the least important part of a student’s analysis because both parties will often have compelling arguments that give each side a realistic chance of success. Nevertheless, you should wrap up your discussion by identifying which party has the best argument(s) and how a court would rule.
Before formulating a firm conclusion, consider the effect, if any, your decision will have on the subsequent disputes you may want to address. Be careful that a finding in favor of one party will not adversely affect your ability to discuss subsequent disputes. Of course, when discussing subsequent disputes, you can always explain that they would only arise if the earlier dispute is resolved a certain way. If you do think that finding in favor of one party will extinguish the need to address additional issues, stick with your original conclusion but qualify it by arguing in the alternative for a finding that favors a different result. This technique will preserve the opportunity for you to address other issues that the professor is inviting you to discuss. While it may be tempting to arrive at a conclusion that brings finality to the analysis, the hallmark of a weak exam is analysis that only scratches the surface and does not delve deeper to address harder issues.)
8. Be Precise
Practice writing insures exams that are clear, concise and to the point. Providing information not requested in an answer can be a waste of time. Remember, lawyers are generally paid to be precise. Attempts to include unrelated material in your answer could backfire if your professor believes you are incapable of ruling out irrelevant information.
9. Remember Public Policy Concerns
After applying the legal rules to the issues presented in your fact pattern, if time allows, include a sentence or two (and generally no more) regarding the policy implications of your conclusions. Law is meant to provide order in society and when imposing laws we should always predict the impact that they will have. Many times professors will engage you in class concerning these policy issues. It will help your overall grade if you address policy implications of your conclusions.
10. Just Do Your Best
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of either not understanding the issues presented or not remembering the rules related to such issues, don’t panic. Remember that many times lawyers are expected to think on their feet. Law school in general teaches students how to think like a lawyer, so do just that. After spending time trying to jog your memory (including skipping questions and returning to them later, etc.), do your best to write the best possible answer. You may not receive top credit, but it’s better than the alternative. Do not, at any time, allow your failure to hit a home run on one question ruin your chances to knock one out of the park on another section of the exam.
Since this is probably the last time that you will hear from us before your exams, we want to wish you all the best of luck and know you’re going to do great! If you do need any advice at all, you know how to contact us.