Students are often tested on their legal knowledge through examinations given at the end of the semester or year. While students may be familiar with final exams that cover a large amount of material, they may be less familiar with the hypothetical format of many law school exams or the unique nature of a law school open book exam. A bit of preparation and practice will help even the newest law students succeed.
How should I study for a law school exam?
Studying for a law school exam can be a daunting task. Some professors may point students to specific topics to study, but often anything covered during class or in the syllabus will be fair game. It is a good idea to gather any study materials recommended by your professor, as well as any of your professor’s old exams or practice exams, which may be posted online in places like your library’s course materials webpage. You may also want to review your outlines and use some of your study time to draft more concise outlines to study or use on an open book exam.
What if my professor allows me to use notes?
You may feel relieved to learn that your exam will be open book, but this does not necessarily mean that you will be able to earn a great score without any preparation. Law school exams are typically limited to two or three hours, and you will probably use all of the allotted time. Crafting specific notes (sometimes called “attack outlines” or “mini outlines”) for open book exams is a great way to ensure that you are using this time efficiently. Your notes should be structured with your particular professor and course in mind, but a good place to start is to make a condensed one-page or half-page outline for each major topic that will allow you to access the relevant information with the flip of a page. For example, a portion of a mini Torts outline may look like this:
One person intends to confine another without consent or legal authority
Their actions directly or indirectly cause confinement, and
The other person is conscious of the confinement or is harmed by it
The person confined knew of a reasonable means of escape and declined to use it
Shopkeeper’s privilege — a store owner reasonably believed an individual stole or attempted to steal their property and detained the individual for a reasonable time in a reasonable manner
Threats of immediate physical force may be sufficient
Withholding important property, such as a passport, may be sufficient
Big Town Nursing Home, Inc. v. Newman
As you can see, not all of the information that you will have learned will be contained in these condensed notes. Instead, they should provide you with the bare bones of each topic and jog your memory as to the details. Some professors award extra points when students cite specific cases in their exam answers, but it may be best to leave cases (or at least full case names) out to save space if your professor confirms that citations will not be necessary. Whether or not you include case names, you may also want to include summaries of important concurrences and dissents studied in class. Finally, remember to include notes about the specific points that your professor has noted are important and your professor’s personal interpretations of the law, which may be more helpful on an exam than the general rules that you may find online or in commercial study materials.
Justia Case Law Outlines
Justia provides outlines of key cases for over 30 law school topics, which contain links to the full text of each case. These outlines may be helpful in preparing notes and studying for law school exams.
Once you have completed your attack outlines, you may want to put them to the test by taking at least one practice exam and timing yourself. You will learn not only whether you need to include different information in your notes, but also whether the length or format of your mini outlines is slowing you down.
What is the best way to answer a law school exam question?
While law school exam questions will vary in style and structure, especially for advanced courses, many of these questions are posed as hypotheticals that students must analyze. You may have already heard of the “IRAC” formula: Issue, Rule, Application (or Analysis), Conclusion. The best exam answers will typically follow a rough outline of this formula, with students identifying each relevant issue contained within the question, correctly recognizing the rule(s) of law implicated, applying the rule of law to the issues, and drawing a clear conclusion based on their analysis.
A student’s issue-spotting section should be little more than a recitation of each issue that the student will address. In the rule section, a student should strive to synthesize a clear rule based on the many cases and resources studied in class. It may be helpful to have already written such a rule in an attack outline in preparation. Students should be careful to save all of their analysis for the application section, where professors are likely to be looking for a few key points. The best students will often also include the caveats or arguments that go against their analysis and distinguish them. Finally, in the conclusion section, a student should be sure to write one clear sentence stating their conclusion and reiterate their issue, rule, and application sections very briefly. Students are sometimes taught to begin their conclusion with “probably yes” or “probably no,” acknowledging when their application may be subject to interpretation or they are lacking sufficient information.
In addition to IRAC, some students are taught “CREAC”: Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion; or “TREAT”: Topic sentence, Rule, Explanation, Application, Topic sentence. These formulas are more or less the same and should be used only if required by professors or genuinely helpful to students. Otherwise, clear and organized answers, in whatever form, are best.
The best way to answer a law school exam question is to be as clear and organized as possible. Most students should avoid legalese and superfluous phrases. Outlining answers before answering in full may help students keep themselves on track. They may also find success with using introductory paragraphs, topic sentences, and descriptive headings to distinguish each section of an answer.
How are law school exams graded?
There are many different ways in which a professor may award points for a law school exam question. One professor may give equal weight to each IRAC section, while another may award the majority of points only when a student arrives at the correct conclusion. Some of the nicest professors will actually note, either before the exam or within the exam, how many points each question is worth and how they recommend that students divide their time. It doesn’t hurt to simply ask your professor how they grade exams during class or their office hours. If in doubt, it will likely pay off to give the most attention to your application section.
What are some common mistakes that students make in exams?
The biggest mistake that students can make is assuming that they do not need to prepare for open book exams or neglecting to ask their professors questions. However, even prepared students can make mistakes. One mistake that new law students commonly make is misreading the “call of the question.” The “call of the question” refers to the specific question that the exam is asking the student to answer. While this may seem obvious, law school exam questions, especially hypotheticals, can be extremely long and complicated. Some exam questions even include completely irrelevant information. If a student is not careful, they may end up answering a question not even posed by the exam. Many students find it helpful to highlight or underline the call of the question (there may be more than one!) as they read and to double-check that they have answered it by the time that they are finished drafting.
Another mistake that some law students make is not showing their work. Much like math teachers, many professors will award partial credit when students show their work, even if they do not arrive at the correct conclusion or run out of time answering. One way that a student can show their work is to mark up the question sheet. For example, a student may circle or underline each issue that they spot in a question and outline their answer on the question sheet or within the answer box. If the student then runs out of time or forgets to include something in their answer, a professor may award partial credit. It may be a good idea to mark up each exam question and outline all of your answers before going back to write them out in full.
Is there a difference between law school and undergraduate essay questions?
Undergraduate essay questions are often answered with a recitation of information learned throughout a course, with little of a student’s personal additions. However, law school essay questions are best answered not by regurgitating rules and cases, but by taking the rules that may be extracted from the materials studied in class and continuing your analysis by using the same strand of logic. While it is important to demonstrate to your professor that you can identify the relevant issues and rules, it may be more important to show that you can think like a lawyer by fully analyzing a legal situation.