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!