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Vital Tips For Exam Preparedness

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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?


The first thing you have to do is the hardest part of the Law School Success System: Relax! Tell yourself: "I've done the class work. 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.

Reading The Instructions:

Before you do anything, rip apart an extra examination book let 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.

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 as 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 win 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.

Here is a mini exam question from contracts class.

Question One:

Dave Dealer went to his door one day and found a package had been mistakenly delivered to his doorstep. He opened it up and found to his shock that it contained a kilo of marijuana. "This is terrible!" he said. "I should call the police." What he did, however, was to call his friend Peter Piper and said, "Hey, Peter, I just happen to have my paws on a stash of Des Moines gold. I'll sell it to you for a thousand bucks."

"Let me think about it," Peter said, fearing the phone line was tapped. After he hung up he sent Dave a note by messenger, saying, "You bet. You got a deal."

Dave, however, having watched a rerun of "Dragnet" in the meantime, had a change of heart and decided not to sell the drug after all. He sent a fax to Peter saying the deal was off.

Dave received the note from the messenger at 10 a.m. and Peter received the fax at 10:01 a.m. Peter offers the money to Dave and demands the dope. Peter claims a valid contract was made and Dave says he effectively withdrew his offer. Peter sues Dave. You're the judge. What's the outcome of the case?

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. Under each issue note the facts relevant to resolving it.

Writing The Answer:

After you've finished this brief outline, you'll write the answer itself. Print if you can't write neatly. I'd like to think professors are above taking off points for sloppiness, but they're human too. Remember that while you're home relaxing on holiday break they'll be plowing through 200 blue books. I suggest you take the extra effort to make their task easier. It certainly can't hurt.

The structure of each answer is the five-point answer format described at the end of the previous (short-answer, issues presented, analysis, other considerations, and conclusion). The following describes what you will write in your answer under each of the five-part headings:

You shouldn't write anything in this space until you have completed the rest of the answer. Write the Roman numeral and leave a two- or three-line space then move on to the issues presented section. Why? Because you don't know what the short answer is yet. You may think you do, having outlined the answer and seen all the issues. But as you write your analysis section, you might change your mind. In fact, you might change your mind two or three times.

By not writing your short answer yet, you avoid having to cross out an incorrect response. Maintain the appearance of certainty When you have completed the analysis, return to this section and flu in the short answer. This should be a direct response to the question the professor has asked. This is important. If the question is whether the court should grant a judgment for the plaintiff or for the defendant, don't write, "The contract is enforceable." Say, rather: "The defendant will prevail."

You might be tempted to equivocate-a natural reflex of attorneys. Yet try to keep the qualifications to a minimum. It's better to say up front, "Yes, the plaintiff will win," and then demonstrate in your analysis section the various merits of both parties' contentions than to say, "The plaintiff will probably win, but the defendant has a good chance of winning also." Remember, in practice, lawyers are asked to give clear, definitive answers, and it is the mark of a good lawyer-and a successful student-to give unhesitant legal opinions.

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. In any event, you don't have either the time or the ability to analyze the fact pattern and write an answer according to the Law School Success System. What are you going to do? 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.

How To Get An A For A Wrong Answer:

Never forget that you are learning to be a lawyer and making mistakes is part of learning. You are not a lawyer; you're a law student. Although you will have learned a great deal over the course of your semester, in taking your exams you will not be held to the same standard as a practicing attorney or a judge. It is entirely conceivable that you will walk out of the exam and return home to realize that you got the answer dead wrong.

Maybe you missed a fact or interpreted a phrase wrong, or maybe you mistook the plaintiff for the defendant. Don't drop out yet. Law school is not like undergraduate school. While they may not admit it, law professors want correct legal reasoning skills-not correct results. How can you have one but not the other? Easily. Professors understand the kind of pressure you're under and know how simple it is to miss facts or mix up rules. If you successfully identify the issues, and state the applicable rule of law, you have done 90 percent of the required work. Even if you let a wrongdoer off the hook or sock an innocent bystander with a huge judgment, you still might get the A you deserve.

Cross-Referencing:

Don't assume your professor will refer back to material in one of your prior questions. For instance, in question 3, you might state simply "Because of the parol evidence rule, the answer is that the D will win," without mentioning what that rule is because you have just described it fully in question 2. But unless you're so strapped for time that it's impossible for you to write out the rule, you should repeat it, or at least say, "Because of the parol evidence rule (see the discussion in question 2), the answer is that the D will win."

Professors often don't read each student's book from cover to cover. Instead, they read everyone's first question, grade them, then turn to the second, and so on. This helps in arriving at a grading standard. To eliminate your losing points for appearing not to know the answer and to eliminate professors' headaches (having to rifle back through your earlier answers), try to make each response self-contained.

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. I found that something cold to drink halfway through the test seemed to give me a nice burst of energy. 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 postmortems. 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. 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.


About Harrison Barnes
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Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

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