Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Law School Exam Mistakes

Now that law students across the country have started classes again, it's worth revisiting the subject of law school exams. Specifically, I want to discuss common mistakes that students make on law school essay exams. I have posted on this subject before, and some of my previous posts on the subject are the folllowing:

Exam-Taking Advice
Reflections on Law School Exams
More Information on Law School Exams

Each of these posts contains additional links to other entries on this and other blog sites that you may find useful. And then there's this little classic from 2006 on the now-defunct Blawg Wisdom, which I think is very insightful.

Here are my thoughts after grading this fall's batch of exams.

1. Time management is key. It is better to competently answer all exam questions than to ace some questions and shortchange others. Your total score will be higher if you manage your time.

2. Taking a few minutes to think about how to tackle an essay question is time well spent. Take a few minutes to figure out both what you need to talk about and how best to organize your answer. And then write a quick little outline. Students who do this almost always do better on exams. They stay on point--which leads to better answers. And the outline is both (a) a way to make sure you don't forget to discuss a point you intended to discuss, and (b) a way to demonstrate to your prof that you are organized and have thought your answer through. Don't underestimate the latter point: an outline certainly cannot hurt in this regard, and it may help.

3. Law student DNA is encoded with an almost irresistible urge to not follow the advice in point #2. You know the feeling--you know your prof said to think first and write second, but you can't resist just plunging in. I know the feeling too--I have been there. But resist it with all your might.

4. The most common mistake of students who understand exam questions is to summarize the law, but not fully apply it to the fact pattern in question. The result? The answer is evidence that the student clearly understood the law, but it is not clear evidence that the student knew how to apply it. And the final score is lower as a result.

5. Another common mistake of students is to jump to the conclusion without explaining how they got there. This is, in essence, the converse of #4--applying the law, but not explaining it very clearly. This too lowers your score.

6. No essay exam answer is perfect. Exams are stressful situations, after all, and the fact patterns of essay questions are typically fairly complex. Your time is extremely limited too, except for take-home exams, and often those have page limits. So you simply can't say everything. So don't expect to. By identifying the primary issues, discussing the relevant law, and applying it, you stand a very good chance at getting a very good grade.


John said...

Ahhh, exams, where law schools begin inculcating their hapless victims with the habit of starting down the road to malpractice by answering complicated questions without benefit of research or chats with more knowledgeable peers.

The only law school exam that makes sense is an open book problem where the students are let loose in the library, given the problem, and may work together or individually for any amount of time up to the alloted maximum (say, 12 hours, or whatever) -- but the must leave the exam at the door when they leave, when it is time-stamped.

The prof grades the answers and then deducts points from each bluebook according to a standard table of deductions -- for a normal 3 hour exam, the perfect answer that took 6 hours nets a B, if 8 hours a C, and if 10 hours a D, and so forth.

The point is that law exams are instructional, and they should teach two things: (1) never begin answering until you have had an opportunity to do some research; and (2) the rewards from a good answer diminish sharply in proportion to the time it took you to arrive at it.

Exams conducted on this model would do far more to reduce the unnecessary exam stress while actually testing something useful, the ability to recognize when an answer is sufficient for the client's needs.

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