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Taking Your First Law School Exam

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You’ve studied for the exam. You wake up feeling somewhat like Lindbergh on the morning of his flight. You arrive at school two hours early (just in case you read the announced time incorrectly—six times). The proctors let you into the classroom, where you find your good-luck chair has been taken. You find another. You sit down.

Now what?

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The first thing you have to do is the hardest part of the LCM system: Relax! Tell yourself: “I’ve done the classwork. I’ve written my outline. I’ve read it. I’m better prepared than most of my fellow students. Bring on the blue books!”

You calm down and begin going over the exam outline and answer format in your mind.

The proctor fires the starting gun, and your first law school exam is underway.

Step One: Reading the Instructions

Before you do anything, rip apart an extra examination booklet or ask the proctor for some scrap paper. Place this in front of you. When the exam commences, read the instructions. It is absolutely vital that you read them very carefully.

The instructions may just say something like, “You have three hours in which to complete the exam.” But they might contain some information that is necessary to remember as you answer the test questions. For instance, the professor might say, “In the following three exam questions, you are to assume you are in a state that adopts the majority rule in all the areas of law we have covered in class.” Or: “Throughout the exam, you are the attorney representing the defendant.” Or even: “Answer three of the following four questions.”

Read these instructions first, and read them carefully.

Step Two: Reading the Question

A typical law school exam asks you to resolve a legal conflict (most often reflected in a lawsuit or criminal trial, although sometimes in a business transaction). Therefore, in reading the question you need to mark three things:

  • Who are the relevant parties? Identify each as the plaintiff, defendant, judge, bystander, or Mr. Red Herring. Circle these (circling makes for a less cluttered page than underlining).
     
  • What are the issues (the legal questions you will have to answer in resolving the conflict) and what facts give rise to these issues? (This is where memorizing the exam outline will be most helpful. As you read the question, you will automatically test the facts against your mental image of the topics in the outline and the legal issues you have to address will emerge.) Circle these, and in the margin nearby jot a shorthand note indicating what the issues are.
     
  • Are there pivot words? These are words like “not,” “but,” “although,” “however,” “and,” and “or.” These words are easily missed but might mean a difference in the outcome because they can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically. Again, circle these words.

Read the question once quickly, marking as mentioned above. Don’t rewrite the question in the margin (there is a strong tendency to do this) and don’t outline it. When you’ve finished the first reading, you’re going to be tempted to start writing immediately. But don’t. Go back and read it again.

Step Three: Outlining the Answer

When you have finished the second reading, take the scrap paper and outline the answer. Never write an answer until you’ve outlined it. This outline should not be long—no more than a short list of the issues.

Step Four: Writing the Answer

After you’ve finished this brief outline, you’ll write the answer itself. Print if you can’t write neatly. Remember that while you’re home relaxing on holiday break they’ll be plowing through 200 blue books.

Analysis

The analysis portion of the exam answer is the three-step approach from the exam answer format:

  • Rule of law
  • Applicable facts
  • Conclusion

Each issue should be handled separately and marked with its own subhead, like “Issue A” or “Issue 1.” There is no need to restate the issue because it will be just inches above.

Below this heading, write in textual form the general rule of law that is applicable to this situation and any exceptions or sub-rules that might apply.

Other Considerations

Once you have completed the legal reasoning portion of the question, it is time to turn to the extra credit portion of your answer. Here you will present a brief discussion of the material that appeared last in your master outline—the miscellaneous material including public policy issues, some views presented by your professor, some bit of sociology or legal philosophy you find relevant or interesting.

Keep it short and make sure the comments you have are appropriate. Don’t bring in irrelevant information. Remember that this is extra credit. Forget about this section if you don’t have enough time to answer other questions, or if you don’t have anything meaningful to add to your answer.

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As Professor Jones writes in her famous article, there are strong public policy reasons for enforcing some illegal contracts, particularly if it appears as if one party is using the traditional rule to take advantage of the other party. Peter’s lawyer would be unable to successfully make such an argument, however, because of the competing social interest in limiting the sale and use of drugs.

Conclusion

The conclusion is a very brief statement to the effect that, based on your legal analysis of all the issues and other considerations matters, the dispute should be answered this way or that. It is here that you will weigh the answers of the various issues and decide in favor of one party or the other. This section is a formality and should contain no independent reasoning of its own.

The conclusion tidies things up nicely and is the final part of the formal legal reasoning process, but because your answer will be found in the other parts of the blue book (the short answer and the rule/analysis sections), you can eliminate the conclusion if you find yourself in a bind for time.

Budgeting Time

You should allocate a certain block of time for each question, depending on the point value assigned to it by the professor. Spend up to half of that time reading and analyzing the question and outlining it before you begin writing the answer.

You should regard the end of the time block as a Cinderella deadline—pumpkin time and bad news if you don’t leave that question and move on to the next one. Obviously, you must remain somewhat flexible, but it is far better to answer all questions in as much depth as time allows rather than to answer one or two in great depth and be unable to answer the last question.

If you do run short of time and are unable to do more than just scratch the surface of the last question because you have devoted so much time to the earlier ones, write a short note to your professor to that effect. If your early answers evidence your knowledge of the material and skills in legal analysis, your professor will probably understand that your failure to answer is indeed lack of time and not uncertainty as to the substance of the law. The professor might take this into consideration in giving you points for the unfinished answer.

However you use your time, always leave at least five minutes to reread as much of the answer as you can. This is to clean up punctuation, to make sure that you didn’t write “plaintiff” when you meant “defendant,” and so on.

Emergencies

No matter how prepared you are, emergencies sometimes happen. You may have gotten stymied on the first two questions and have only ten minutes left in which to answer the last one. Your watch breaks and you lose track of the time. Or, more likely, you simply panic and your mind goes blank. Use the exam outline as a parachute.

In your blue book, write an exam outline topic heading that seems to have something to do with the facts. Beneath this, write the rule of law for that topic, throw in some facts, and draw a conclusion. Go on to the next exam outline topic heading and do the same, for so long as you have time remaining. Don’t worry about correctly analyzing the factual situation in the question. Concentrate on getting as much information from your brain onto the paper as you can. Show your professor that although you perhaps aren’t responding directly to the question, you know a massive amount of law.

Survival Rations

Some students like to bring candy and gum to an exam. If you want such things, fine, but don’t distract yourself or others with edibles. You won’t be allowed to smoke during the exam unless there is a separate smokers’ section or exam room, but if you feel the urge so strongly that you become distracted, step out into the hall for three or four minutes for a cigarette.

Celebrate

When it’s over with, no post-mortems. Don’t discuss the exam with classmates. Everyone will have found at least one issue no one else thought of and will gleefully point out the fact. Listening to such discussions will make you wonder if you took the same exam as everybody else.

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If there is any way to avoid it, do not study for future exams on the night of one you’ve finished. You need relaxation more than input. Have some fun. Get some sleep.


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