FAQ: What are law school exams, and how do I prepare?

Posted by Rob Barnett on 11/15/15 12:58 PM

 If you’re a 1L approaching the end of your first semester of law school, and you’re anything like I was, you’re probably starting to wonder: What are these exams I keep hearing about?  How do I prepare for them?  How do I succeed on them?  Will I be okay?

As to the last one, the answer is definitely: yes.  You’re fine!  As for the other questions, read on…

Q: What is a law school exam like?

A: Obviously, there’s so single format to law school exams.  Some professors have multiple-choice sections (which seem very unlike law school, but are excellent preparation for the bar exam), others like to ask open-ended questions about legal theory or policy; some ask several short questions and others ask one long one.  But one thing that almost every law school exam will contain is some sort of issue spotter.

Q: Ok, then, what’s an issue spotter?

A: An issue spotter is generally a long, convoluted pattern of facts which raises – and tests your ability to identify and analyze – lots of tricky legal questions.  The typical law school exam will give you one of these fact patterns and ask you to do something relatively generic, like write a memo analyzing the possible legal arguments, or advise the parties of potential legal claims.  Your job is to find the issues which are raised, and to say something intelligible (or even intelligent!) about them.

Q: Sounds like reading a case for class – understand the facts and then draw some legal conclusions, right?

A: Yes and no.  The processes required – getting a grip on the facts and then fitting what you know about the law to those facts – are very similar to what you’ve been doing while preparing cases for class.  You’ll also need the ability to see potential arguments on both sides of the facts, which reading opinions and dissents has no doubt prepared you to do.  What’s different on an exam, however, is the sheer quantity of facts and issues presented – which must generally be resolved in a very brief period of time.  Imagine 10 regular cases rolled into one mega-case, and you’ll have a decent idea of your task!

Q: Ok, so how can I prepare?

A: Law school classes prepare you in a general sense, but what you need to do to succeed on an issue-spotter is very different.  Instead of diving deep into one particular factual dispute or legal point, you need to touch on many different points in a way that is both thorough and efficient.  Classes require depth; exams require breadth.  I have two suggestions for preparing.

The first suggestion is to start looking at actual law school exams.  Many law schools have archives of professors’ past exams, so I’d start by looking at your actual professors’ exams if you can.  Try to get a sense of the types of questions your professors ask – in my experience, the format of exams varies little over time – and try your best to answer a few of the questions!  Your answers won’t be much good, yet: you probably haven’t started synthesizing, and you haven’t even learned all the issues yet!  But you have to start somewhere… and learning (or re-learning) legal concepts later will be much more memorable if you can actually understand where those concepts might come into play.  If you can find a model answer to the exam – try an outline bank, if your school has one -- and compare your answer to it, that’s even better.

Second, start synthesizing.  You have (I hope) learned much more so far in law school than you can use on the exam, so it’s time to start condensing.  Reduce each case, opinion, doctrine, or set of facts to a single sentence that you can pull out on an exam – you won’t need much more than that -- and organize those sentences in a very short study guide.  Concision, concision, concision.  When you’re trying to analyze several pages of facts under time pressure on an exam, you’ll thank me!

Q: Isn’t it a little early to get started preparing?

A: No way!  Time in law school is always scarce, but as you get closer to the exam – and likely more efficient at reading cases for class – you should start to think more and more about exam preparation.  Keep looking at practice exams until you start to see trends, then block off time to take a few full exams. Try outlining others.  Taking the exam for real will be stressful enough, so you want to feel as comfortable as possible.

Q: Is this really a good way to test what I have learned this year?

A:  That’s a great question.  Probably not – there’s much more to being a good lawyer than being able to take an exam!  At the same time, an issue spotter presents a great opportunity to showcase all you’ve learned… and the facts can sometimes be fun too.  So, prepare well, take deep breaths, see your exams as an opportunity to demonstrate all you’ve learned, and go spot those issues!

For more reading on law school for incoming law students, check out these posts: 6 Essential Law School Cases: a 1L's GuideWhat is Constitutional Law, How the LSAT Will Help You With Law SchoolLooking to work with a law school tutor? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person legal studies tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

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Tags: law school