Good Advice for Law Exam Takers

In the course of an internal email exchange at the law school about advice for law exam takers, Professors Caroline Bradley and William Widen sent in the following sound and pithy advice which they have kindly allowed me to post here:

Caroline Bradley said,

I think that the advice I really would hope more people would take would involve:

1. reading the question carefully – you should answer the question the professor asks, not a different one you would prefer to answer;

2. thinking before beginning to write so the answer is organized and so you don't include irrelevant information;

3. answering the question rather than trying to show how much you know or how much work you have done – relevance is crucial;

4. not making assumptions or inventing facts in a hypothetical;

5. spelling out the analytical steps you are taking rather than merely writing down your conclusions.

William Widen said,

1. Just as a good advocate will take account of the judge who is presiding over the case, the student should take account of advice given and preferences expressed by the particular professor in the course. This does not mean that you must agree with the views expressed by the professor on open points or points of policy, but answers should, as appropriate, address matters focused on in the course.

2. Take the time to carefully read the instructions for each question. Some questions may ask you to write a response as if you were a judge or writing a memo for a client. To the extent possible, be mindful of any role you are asked to play or any context in which you are asked to place yourself. If the question asks you to adress three points in particular, address those three points clearly in your answer. Be responsive to the questions asked and provide responses in the appropriate format.

3. In a standard issue spotter/essay question, professors often want you to demonstrate both knowledge of particular legal doctrines and their parameters AND how those doctrines and parameters might apply to the facts in the question—including identification of alternative theories and ways of looking at the facts. A bald statement of legal doctrine (merely reciting boilerplate or treatise type language) is usually a bad idea. Don't make conclusory statements about doctrine like: there is a contract in this case because there was an offer, an acceptance and consideration. Rather, in addition to identifying the parameters of the doctrine, also identify the facts in the problem that constitute an offer, an acceptance and consideration, identifying why the particular facts fit the parameters of the doctrine as well as any problems with that application. Don't assume that the first doctrine that comes to mind is the only doctrine that is being tested. Take a few minutes to consider alternatives to your first impression—perhaps outlining an answer on scratch paper. Don't assume the professor will read your mind—if you cite to a case explain briefly why that case supports or does not support the position you are taking. Demonstrate on paper your thought process so the professor can evaluate it.

4. Avoid careless misstatements of doctrine. For example, in the UCC the staute of frauds applies to sales of goods with a price of $500 or more. Don't identify the rule as applying to goods with a “value” of $500 or more (when the correct term is “price”) or identify the rule as applying to goods with a price of “more than $500” when the correct formulation is “$500 or more.”

5. Be alert for chances to support your answer/choice of applicable doctrine by reference to the rationale or policy that supports the rule you are using.

6. Don't waste time telling the professor to have a nice summer.

7. Don't waste time telling the professor that you are now running out of time. Write a few more responsive words or sentences.

8. Budget your time so you do not get zero points on one question. Often it is very hard to make up for a zero on one question with a detailed answer to another question. If time is short, provide at least an outline of your answer to each question.

9. Do not waste a lot of time merely reciting the facts in the problem. The professor wrote the question and knows the facts. He or she wants you to apply the law to the facts not merely summarize the facts.

Personally, I always recommend reading Getting to Maybe — but the above is much much shorter!

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7 Responses to Good Advice for Law Exam Takers

  1. um_law_grad says:

    I was pointed to this blog by an old classmate, who asked me to respond to this post. Over the years I have given law school advice to many students, and each one has later thanked me profusely. So let me address this “advice”.

    First, my credentials: I booked many classes at UM, including Fischl’s. I finished in the top 10 of my class. And I was generally recognized as one of the “lazier” law students. So let’s begin.

    1. No offense to Fischl, but his book is impossible to read, and even harder to apply. I do not recommend it, and in fact believe the advice therein is harmful.
    2. Go to and buy their exam taking treatise. You do not need the tapes, just the book. It is the best investment you will make in your law school career. Everyone I have suggested it to agrees 100%, it is invaluable.
    3. It is utterly pointless to “talk” and “think” about how to take law school exams. That is like “talking” and “thinking” about how to hit a golf ball or how to drive a car. You can read every book but it is utterly useless without practice. If you study anything, study model answers.
    4. You must buy (used) commercial study guides and outlines, particularly ones with sample exam questions and model answers. AS A 1L BLACK LETTER LAW IS YOUR FRIEND. BLACK LETTER LAW WILL GET YOU AN A OR B. Deep thinking will get you a C or worse. Emmanuel outlines are great, I keep them around even now in practice.
    5. Most important, you MUST practice exam taking several times throughout the semester. No, that does not mean sitting for 3 hours. Do one, two or three questions a week, then compare your answer to the model. Later, you can just outline your answer to two of the questions, and fully write out the third. But you must practice issue spotting.
    6. Your semester should begin from the exam backwards. Huh? Yes. Take a look at sample exams your prof has given, or use others on the same subject online from other schools. Only then will you understand what the subject is all about, and what kinds of problems you are expected to deal with. You will look at lectures in a new light.
    7. I personally never made an outline. It is a waste of time. You can go to the online outline banks and download dozens, and find one you like that fits your class and your style. Share them with friends. The Harvard outline bank was one of the best if it is still open to the public.
    8. Stay away from campus. Stress is contagious, and it is pointless. The students that were the most panicked and sleep deprived did the worst on the exams.
    9. Get a good night’s sleep.

    I know profs do not like to hear this kind of advice and consider it “gaming” the system. But as a 1L you have no other choice. I saw some really smart people get crushed by their 1L exams, and did not recover in the 2nd semester enough to make law review. They simply had no idea what to do, and were not prepared. And sadly, once they started getting A’s by doing what I told them to do, they remained quite bitter at Fischl and others who meant well but really don’t know how to teach people to do well on law school exams.

    When you get to 2L and 3L, especially when you are graded on papers alone, it is much less of a game and you get to shine as a deep thinker. But if you think you can go into your 1L exams as a deep thinker you’re going to get crushed. You need to be a *quick* thinker on 1L exams, the deep thoughts might come, they might not, but don’t worry. The quick thoughts are worth the same as the deep ones. So I say again, practice, practice, practice.

    Lastly, if you’re not using laptops, buy a decent pen that writes smoothly. Many students’ hands get tired or cramped during the frantic writing (another reason to practice to prepare your hand) and at a minimum this can be distracting. A nice $50 Cross pen and some $2 refills is a worthwhile investment.

  2. michael says:

    Well, I certainly agree about the sleep part.

    On the question of outlines, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all answer. What matters is what fits your learning style. In my experience, many students can’t take in and recall information as well if they are just passively reading it compared to how they can if they are involved in creating the outline. It’s the *act of outlining* much more than *having the outline* which is most likely to be of value. But again, people differ.

    I will say that the most common mistake on the law school exams that I grade by far (and, admittedly, I’ve taught predominantly 2L & 3L courses for the last decade) is ***failing to read the question carefully***. That includes failure to spot issues, ignoring the second half of the question, the invention of non-issues, the responding to the question expected rather than asked.

  3. miamigrad says:

    Yeah. I agree with “stay away from campus,” “get a good night’s sleep,” and “buy a decent pen.” That’s about it.

    There was an article in last week’s New York Times about why diet books are so successful–essentially, people think that the books will provide some new secret or easy method about losing weight. In actual fact, losing weight requires diet or exercise or both. Exam-taking tips are simliar. Students can get caught up in all of them, without doing what is proven to result in good grades: doing all of the reading, going to all of the classes, making your own outlines, and yes, even briefing cases as a 2L or 3L.

  4. Go Democrats says:

    UM Law Grad,

    In sharp contrast to your ridiculous posting….I proffer the following for my belief that learning the proper techniques for outlining will result in better exam scores:

    St. Thomas has begun a new campaign aimed at teaching students how to outline and study for exams… this campaign began 3 years ago and look at the results for the February 2009: Number 4 in the state! In case you are wondering why I would brag when we didn’t even score a medal, is because just 4 years ago, we had 37% bar passage and was last in the state. This year, we even beat, FSU, UF, and your beloved UM!!! And if you look correctly, UM, after obviously following your nonsense model of studying, has come in 3rd from the bottom!!!

    Here are the rest of the scores in case anyone cares:

    1. FIU 81.5%
    2. Stetson 80%
    3. Nova 72.5%
    4. St. Thomas Univ. 70.4%
    5. Florida Coastal 66.1%
    6. FSU 65%
    7. UF 64.0%
    8. UM 61.1%
    9. Barry 54.5%
    10. Florida A&M 52.3%
    11. Non Florida Schools 70.7%

  5. joe. says:

    There’s one outstanding line in Widen’s advice, I think: “in addition to identifying the parameters of the doctrine, also identify the facts in the problem that constitute an offer, an acceptance and consideration, identifying why the particular facts fit the parameters of the doctrine as well as any problems with that application.”

    Everyone always says, “You have to *apply* the law to the facts, not just say what the law is.” It’s rare that anyone actually says what that means, however, which I think is the sentence I quoted. It’s actually not that obvious, and given the time pressure (and pressure generally), as well as the fact that no one ever gets feedback on an exam, it’s understandable if students sometimes (in panic mode?) just blurt out all the law they think is relevant to a particular issue. (Especially when another common refrain is something like, “You get points for spotting all the issues, not for getting the right answer.”)

  6. michael says:

    Most sensible people put very little stock in the February results — which those are — because the number of exam takers is relatively small compared to the summer exam that most students take after graduation. A substantial fraction of the people who take the February test either failed in the summer, or were not able to graduate on schedule and had to take it late. (Some are also early exam takers who took summer courses, others were on part-time programs.)

    I don’t think those numbers mean anything. Anyone who concluded from them that FIU and Stetson were the best law schools in the state is mistaken — at least for most meanings of “best.”

    (See also Bar Pass Rates are Over-Rated As A Measure of Law School Quality on the more general issue.)

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