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How Important Are Exams for Success in Law School

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"Ignorance of the law," it is said, "excuses no man." Certainly no law student! As the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so for all immediate practical purposes the proof of success in law school is in one's performance on the exams.

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Just as admissions at most law schools are based on a formula combining LSAT scores and college grades to predict how an applicant will perform in law school, that is, how well he will do on his law school exams, so the career possibilities that will be open to a law school graduate will be determined to a large extent by the record he has achieved on his law school exams. While perhaps the only verifiable correlation between success on exams and success as an attorney is that the top law firm, clerkship, and teaching positions are filled with good test-takers, exams remain well entrenched as a way to quantify even some of the full range of qualities important in a good attorney.

Law school exam periods are always a time of anxiety, stress, and tension, and particularly so for the first-year student who, in addition to worrying that his semester grade for a course will be resting on a single three-hour examination, also suddenly finds himself lace to face with a host of unknowns: whether he has been studying properly, whether lie has studied enough, whether he has studied the right things, whether he has learned a course sufficiently for the purposes of an exam, what the exam will encompass. If the student has followed the types of procedures outlined in the preceding sections, he will probably feel as comfortable and confident about the substantive material of a course as possible. Without worrying about it constantly or making it an obsession, the student throughout the semester should also be attempting to find out all he can about the exam or a course so that it too will be a comfortably familiar challenge, rather than an obstacle of unknown proportions.

It is not too early to begin investigating the question of examinations within the first month of school, for the more a student discovers about what an exam will probably entail, the more closely he can gear his day-to-day work to that concrete goal.

Many law schools gather and bind together a copy of every exam given during each year. These volumes, often going back many years, will be shelved in the library or central administrative office. If after several weeks of class, when the student has gained a preliminary grasp of what a course is all about, he begins to read over the examinations his professor has given in the past, he will observe repeating patterns of emphasized material and typical sorts of questions, and so will begin to develop a feel for the type of exam the professor gives. For example, if a professor with predictable regularity thoroughly covers insanity and intoxication as defenses to criminal conduct, the student, while not being certain that such a question will appear on the forthcoming exam, may safely assume that the professor considers the area to be of importance and therefore will want to be prepared to deal with these areas on the exam. Similarly, if every semester for the past decade a professor sets forth his exam as a series of long, involved fact situations, or asks that the student assume the role of a lawyer for the defendant or plaintiff or the role of a judicial clerk and write a legal memorandum, the student will prepare in a different way than if the exams always consisted of pages of short-answer questions concerning the specific holdings of cases. And, although it is an ancient legal maxim that "the law-is not concerned with trifles” - the student should determine early in the game whether any of his law professors are concerned with trifles, or whether they are, for instance, more concerned with broad principles and theories.

If a law school does not make old exams available, or if a professor always excises his exams from the volumes, or if a professor is new to the school, the student will of course not be able to make as complete a survey of a professor's exam habits. But neither should he have to go into an exam cold. There are professors who wait until the final class period to talk about the exam and to announce that they are putting some sample exams on reserve in the library; such action comes much too late to help the student focus his studying toward the exams. The student must therefore often take the initiative to broach the subject of examinations, even at such an early stage of the semester that it might seem somewhat neurotic to be thinking about them. While the professor will probably not treat seriously questions like "Is Brown versus Board of Education going to be on the exam?" or "Do we have to know about guest statutes?" it would be reasonable to ask about the form of the exams and if the semester's material was going to be covered generally or if any particular areas were going to be emphasized or omitted. If a professor is unwilling to reveal anything about his exam, the student can still learn much about his style and focus by talking to upper-class students. If all else fails, exams for the same course given by other professors could be reviewed to gain a general idea of the types of questions that might be involved.

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Whether there will be a generous reading period between the end of classes and the beginning of exams, and whether the exams will be well-spaced with free days between each will depend on the policies of the individual law school and the fates which decide the student's individual exam schedule. Exam schedules are not customarily announced too far in advance of the examinations, so the student should be prepared for the worst: an inadequate reading period, if any at all and all exams bunched together.

There are students who by nature tend toward delay and procrastination and who will put off the drudgery of mastering each course until right before the examinations. Whether or not the effect of a splurge of all-nighters spent cramming a semester of law into reeling brains is evident in their blue books, it is at least evident in themselves as they walk through the law school as tight as finely-drawn violin strings or as dazed as victims of shock. However successful the student has been with such last-minute efforts in college, he should hold them in abeyance at least during the first year in law school. For a midnight attempt to absorb for the first time a massive and hazy body of law is an experience better avoided.

On the other hand, if the student has been preparing outlines for each course, returning to them weekly to revise, review, and update, the hardest part of his work will have ended with the final class period. He will already have a working familiarity with the organization and the substance of the material and through his weekly readings will discover that- without any conscious effort to memorize the material-by a process of osmosis this knowledge has already become safely implanted in a new set of brain grooves and conceptual receptacles. Rather than having to learn the material afresh at the end of the semester, the student has the opportunity to polish his knowledge to the finished degree necessary to write superior exams.

Approximately five or six weeks before the examination period, the student can begin to prepare in earnest. Tackling one course each week, he could divide the number of pages in his outline by the number of days of the week he will study the subject, and then carefully study and review that number of pages of his outline each day. By dividing an outline into this type of bite-size portion, the student can sharply focus his attention on the material without adding an impossible burden to his continuing day-to-day class work.

If the outline has been carefully prepared, there will be few instances, if any, when the student will have to return to his notes, briefs, or casebooks for clarification. All of these sources are now best put aside. Concentration should now be exclusively on the outline. It should be learned so thoroughly that it is almost memorized, not in the sense that the student sets out to commit it to memory, but in the sense that the information is so familiar and so well understood that the student can turn to the table of contents he has made for his outline and from those key words and phrases flesh out all the major ideas and concepts, cases and principles contained in the outline under those categories. This daily review should continue up to the day of the examination, with the entire outline reviewed the day before the exam.

It should now be clear why the outline must be a compact document capable of easy assimilation, and clear also how a student can readily "learn" a self-prepared outline while really only memorizing a commercially-prepared outline or an outline prepared by another member of a study group.


This method of review should be followed for each course, even in those rare instances when a professor announces that his exam will be open-book or open-notes. It can be stated with absolute certainty that unless a student is as familiar with the material of a course as he would be for a regular exam, the fact that an exam is open-book will be of no help to him and may even be harmful if it engenders a sense of complacency which cuts down his preparation and review. There will simply be no time during the exam to look up information that the student has not already classified and absorbed.

The typical law school exam consists of several intricate fact situations followed by a general type of question such as "Discuss and evaluate the rights, liabilities, and remedies of the parties," or "Discuss what crimes may be charged, against whom and defenses thereto," or "What steps would you take in the trial court on behalf of the defendant at this stage? What supporting arguments would you make?" In this type of exam, as in most other types of law school exams, the professor is looking less for "the solution" to the problem, in the sense of what a court might decide, than he is looking for the student's ability to spot the issues and ambiguities of the problem and to suggest approaches to resolve them.

The professor is not interested in reading an involved introduction to the student's answer, nor will he be interested, unless specifically requested, in reading a general essay on a particular aspect of the law with only a vague connection with the problem on the exam.

The aim of the law student is therefore not to discuss the law in abstract terms or to attempt to find the one and only answer to a hypothetical, but to be able to recognize and discuss all the issues and problems lurking within or behind the facts. It is this ability which most professors regard as the hallmark of the mastery of a course.

Thus, to take an absurd example to make the point, as a torts student reads through a hypothetical patterned after the nursery tale of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," he would mentally check oil the various issues called forth by the facts. Has Goldilocks trespassed as to the bears' property and house? Is there a conversion question with her eating their porridge? Did she exercise due care in sitting in the baby bear's chair? Does Goldilocks have any possible actions against the bears? Are they liable for assault by surrounding her as she slept? Would they be liable for intentional infliction of mental distress? Are bears in general, and the baby bear in particular, to be held to human standards of care? What type of privilege did the bears have to protect their property? Could the bears have set traps on their land to discourage trespassing? What types of incentives do the courts want to foster: to feel secure in one's home? To protect trespassers from harm?

Having carefully read over the problem marking those phrases or facts that catalyze the issues and problems within the hypothetical, and having taken a few minutes to outline briefly the answer that seems to be called for, the student should launch right into the answer, perhaps starting by writing, "The first issue is whether . . ." By spotting the issues the professor meant to raise and by analyzing the problems to which they give rise, the student will be on the right track in dealing with the question. The student should beware of answering one of the issues in such a manner that the entire fact situation is immediately resolved, thus curtailing his analysis. If one issue seems critical to the case but its outcome is debatable, the student should point out that the case could be resolved in a certain fashion, but if it was not, then the following additional issues would have to be considered. In other words, the student should exercise great care to deal with all the issues fairly raised by the facts without taking broad liberties with the given facts to invent and resolve issues not squarely contained in the problem. A one-sided approach to an issue should be avoided; rather, persuasive reasons supporting both sides should be discussed. Above all, the issues raised and the law applied should always be tightly bound to the particular facts of the case.

Each answer should show an understanding of the {acts, the issues involved, and the applicable principles of law. Each answer should demonstrate not merely the student's memory, but the process of reasoning by which he worked with the facts, issues, and law to arrive at a conclusion. Each answer should be clear, concise, grammatical, and presented in a well-organized and logical style.

Latent or patent, law schools are institutions which are fairly seething with competition. This competition can manifest itself in most destructive forms at exam time. The tension students feel during these periods is easily communicable and there are some who, for whatever reasons, will try to intensify this already oppressive atmosphere.

More commonly, a half hour or so before an exam begins the air will be buzzing with frantic questions about the facts of a case or the five elements that constitute adverse possession. There are those who specialize in spending these last minutes before an exam asking involved questions of those around them, slyly implying that if a person can't immediately dredge up the answer, he is going to find the approaching exam rough going. If a student has a tendency to be disturbed or jogged by such tactics, he might want to be studiously reading something or safely sequestered in an out-of-the-way spot until the last possible moment. One should at least be aware that such obnoxious, often dangerously subtle, stratagems can come into play during the final days or hours before an exam.

One persistent criticism of the law school examination process is that all the student learns about his performance on an exam is a single letter or number grade. It is unusual for a professor to hand back the graded exams or to meet with the class to discuss the types of answers he was seeking. It is therefore possible for the student to go through three years of law school writing the same type of examinations and receiving the same type of grades.

If the student truly does not understand why he received a particular grade, or is uncertain as to how he could have written a better exam, he should see his professor as soon after the grades are posted as possible. Some professors might be willing to go over his exam with him and discuss ways in which it could have been improved, but at a minimum the student should be allowed to read a blue book that the professor considered well done. After a careful reading, the student might then have some specific questions which the professor could more easily answer than the general lament, "Where did I go wrong?"

First-semester exams can have a definite effect on the personality of one's colleagues. Often, without even knowing the grades a person received, it will be obvious from his new sense of confidence and ease that he did well and that his faith in his own intellect, bruised and buffeted during the initial months of law school, has been reaffirmed. Those who did not do as well as they had hoped should take care not to be caught in a web of despair and self-doubt. It is certainly true that more people leave law school because of self-generated tension that because of unacceptable grades. If a person has put in a conscientious semester's work, he will at least have a better understanding of what law school requires and of what he can do to improve his performance.

The student should also realize that the relationship between the grades he received and his mastery of a course might be a rather tenuous one. One of the inequities of first-year law school is that the students are usually assigned their courser and professors. When there are several sections of a required first-year course taught by different professors, there might well be vast differences in what the sections learn and what kinds of grades the sections receive on the examination. Thus, an examination graded "C" by a professor who taught one first-year contracts section might have been awarded a "B" or an "A" by a professor who taught another section of contracts and who did not believe all first-year exams should be graded low to terrorize students into working even harder. Similarly, one contracts section might have received a thorough grounding in standard contracts law while another section, placed by fate in a class taught by a professor who wished to experiment with a new way of teaching contracts, might end the semester in a state of confusion if the professor's experiment failed. There is little that may be done about such inequities except to grin and bear it, perhaps with the inner satisfaction of knowing that while justice might be slow, it is sure. One year the faculty of a southern law school was depleted by several leaves of absence with the result that the important course of commercial transactions was offered by only one professor. At the end of the semester when grades were posted, the captive students of this class were shocked to discover that almost all had received "C's" on the examination. The professor's field of expertise was quickly labeled "The Law of the C" and for several years thereafter this reputation haunted him. He found that instead of teaching classes of a hundred or more students as he was accustomed, his elective classes were selected by only a meager handful of students who hadn't received the word. Through such a judicious selection of courses and professors, upper-class students can see that the inequities of the first year are balanced out.

While the benefits of a top first-semester or first-year performance are substantial, most employers are cognizant of the special problems inherent in the first year and are inclined to be tolerant of a less than superior first-year record if the student shows improvement during the following semesters. And if, after several semesters, the student discovers that despite his best efforts he is in a law school where it is impossible for him to be at the top of the class, he might call to mind the old law school maxim that those who receive the "A's" become law professors, those who receive "B's" will become judges, and those who receive anything else will be the ones who make all the money.

Some credence might indeed be given to this theory by the first-year law school experience of the King of Torts, Melvin Belli. "At first I didn't know how to write an exam and drew an early C in Torts and another C in Contracts."'" Belli of course went on to become one of the most celebrated, and highest paid, lawyers of this century. But perhaps the important lesson to be drawn from Belli's experience is that how to take an exam, and, more generally, how to study law, involve skills and talents which are native to very few, and which must be consciously cultivated and developed by most students. "By the end of the third year," Belli reports, "I was number thirteen in my class, with straight A's in Criminal Law, Property, and the toughest courses." M Belli had not suddenly acquired a legal mind. He had learned between his first and final years at law school how to apply his native intelligence to the study of law. He had learned how to study law.

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