The secret to doing well on law school exams is actually pretty simple: Deconstruct what you’re being asked to do, and then relentlessly focus on learning how to do it well.
No problem, right? So why does law school have such a ferocious reputation?
1. Everything’s graded on a curve. Even if you do well, someone else might do better. You’re competing against all of your very smart and accomplished classmates, not just displaying your personal knowledge.
2. The pedagogy is weird. Unlike most undergrad classes, law professors won’t spoon-feed you what you need to know. You essentially have to teach yourself and what you discuss in class often bears little resemblance to what
you’re expected to do on the exam.
3. You don’t get any practice. Most law school classes only have one exam, so you don’t get the chance to practice before game time. There’s a lot of pressure, and not everyone can handle it.
4. It’s unclear what you should be learning. Think about how law school is taught. You read a bunch of individual cases and talk about them in class. A reasonable student might assume that the key to success is to memorize
a bunch of details about these cases, and regurgitate them on the exam. Wrong! The goal is to process the information you extract from the cases into a body of law you can apply to new factual situations. Organizing your study materials case-by-case is a recipe for disaster, tempting though it may be.
How to Succeed on Law School Exams
Now that we know why law school is challenging, let’s talk about how to situate yourself for law school exam success. The first step is understanding how the assigned reading (which you’ll spend most of your class time discussing) relates to the final exam.
How to Read a Case
The reading load in law school is enormous. You’ll be assigned hundreds of individual cases, which you have to synthesize into a coherent body of law. With every case you read, try to answer one question: Why was this case assigned? Your answer should be something along the lines of, “John v. Smith was assigned because it illustrates the shift from the traditional rule of contributory negligence to the modern rule of comparative negligence and discusses the policy rationale for each rule.”
Do we care about the facts of this particular case? Not so much. What we really care about is the law. After reading this case, we know there’s a concept called “contributory negligence” and a concept called “comparative negligence.” We know what each is, and we understand the pros and cons of each approach. We might even know something about which jurisdictions have adopted each approach, and why.
How Cases Appear on Exams
So how would this case show up on an exam? In an undergrad class, you’d get a question that asks you to discuss the historical development of the law of negligence, including contributory and comparative negligence. Law school’s not like that! (At least not generally. You could have a professor who asks one question of this sort on an exam, but it won’t be the norm.) On a law school exam, you’ll get a crazy story about multiple people, each of whom did something stupid that resulted in various injuries. The prompt will ask you to discuss the legal liability of each person in the story.
What does this story have to do with the case we read? Well, you’ll be expected to think to yourself, “Hum, it seems as if Person A’s behavior contributed to Person B’s injury. Does that mean Person A was negligent? Does it matter that Person B also did something irresponsible, which contributed to his injury?” No one’s going to give
you these questions! You have to think them up on your own, and then attempt to answer them. That’s what legal analysis – at least of the exam variety – is.
How to Make Sense of “The Law” and Apply It
At this point, you might be wondering how in the world you’re supposed to get from point A to point B. How can you go from reading a bunch of isolated cases to figuring out the legal liability of each person in a story? Basically, you have to process all the information you extracted from the cases into a coherent set of legal rules (and sub-rules, and exceptions to the rules, and so on). Then you have to practice applying these rules to novel factual situations, thinking about what each side would argue.
The standard way to accomplish this task is by creating study aids, usually referred to as “outlines.” Outlines (which can be actual outlines, or flowcharts, or flashcards, or whatever) help you organize “the law” into a meaningful whole. Once you understand the structure of an area of law, it’s much easier to figure out what questions you need to ask yourself on an exam.
Ultimately, your grade mostly depends on asking the right questions, not on getting “the right” answer. There’s probably not one anyway, so don’t stress about it!
Learn to ask the right questions, and you’ll be well on your way to exam success. Fail to do so, and things probably won’t go so well.