Suggestions for taking law school exams

Dec 07, 2009 Suggestions for taking law school exams

For me, law school was in many respects unnecessarily and overly fraught with unpleasant bootcamp aspects on the road to getting my degree and fighting for justice.

As time has passed, I have recognized that law school — and bar exam preparation — can be more pleasant and bearable the more that a law student prepares and thinks like a lawyer. In that regard, awhile ago I gave the following suggestions to a first-year law student preparing for final exams. If this posting comes too late to be useful to Underdog readers for this semester, it will be here for future semesters:

– As with any exam, keep your immunity from colds strong and your rest, exercise and eating good. Humor and personal/spiritual balance is always important.

– Practice doing at least one exam in similar testing conditions to what it will really be like. E.g., go to an empty classroom with a prior published exam for the professor’s same class, and answer all the exam questions in the allotted time.

– Getting it right happens from balance and hard work, not from perfection. Keep it simple, but not more simple than called for.

– As with my high school physics teacher, show your work/reasoning. If you are asked if it is Constitutional to have the Ten Commandments hanging on the mayor’s office wall, for instance, state the law that applies (First Amendment’s Establishment and Separation clauses), give the applicable case law, apply the law to the facts and give your conclusion.

– There is no mystery to exam essay writing. Outline your basic short outline on paper or in your head, and that is the framework for your answer. Be yourself in answering. Be here now.

– You may have been taught to answer exam questions in IRAC (issue/rule/analysis/conclusion) form. If you start running out of time, at least do RA (rule / analysis).

– Do not spend undue time on being an interesting writer. Answer the question. Be legible.

– For multiple choice questions, if any, often the only way to do this is to eliminate the worst choices first.

– Law school, the law practice  and life are not fair.  This will help avoid frustration over seemingly unfair exam questions, unfair exam-taking conditions, and unfair grades.

– It is more important to understand and synthesize legal concepts than to memorize the contents of each case you read. Do cite key relevant case names in your answer (e.g. Miranda), where applicable).

– Many appellate judges like creating or improving upon multi-part legal tests (e.g., negligence is duty, breach, and proximate cause). Take the exam away from being rocket science, and strip the answer down to basic logic, elements and legal tests.

– Don’t think of the exam as a burden. Think of it as a stepping stone to making you a good lawyer to help real clients with causes you care about. Even when asked to argue a position for a hypothetical slimebag, part of being a persuasive advocate is seeing the issue from the opponent’s side.

– When answering the question, put yourself in the shoes of the answerer (a fictitious judge, plaintiff’s lawyer or defense lawyer). Treat the parties as real. If asked to advocate, know who you client is, make your client real and come alive; love your client and know that s/he depends fully on you. Know your audience, and answer as if your client’s life/livelihood/survival depended on it. This removes exams from being a dry experience that makes many hate law school and the law practice.

– Professors want to be taken seriously, even though some get silly, at best, by inserting silly names for parties. Do not have unreasonably high expectations of your professors. They are mere humans reviewing your work at that level.

– Focus on discussing exams with upbeat and capable people and on reducing contact with people who are downers, other than to give them your own moral support.

– Capable law students who have studied with the professor might have some particular pearls of wisdom for you. Legal fraternities may have some old exams not found elsewhere.

– A lot of exam taking is strategy and energy, and never  brute force.

– How important is your class outline other than to have the concepts synthesized and written down clearly, and to have some key cases ready to cite (citing to the name, rather than necessarily needing the rest of the case citation)?

– For open book exams, you likely will have little time to review the book and your notes during the exam.

– These exams are not mysteries. Think like a lawyer. When stumped, try to find the most likely relevant rule(s) and apply them.

– For the professor, much of the exam question will call for concepts and information long engrained in the professor’s mind.

Curiously, I found that more law professors were willing to show me the most direct roadmap for passing the bar exam than doing well on a law school exam. I suppose that is what the bar preparation courses were paying them to do.  

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