Law School Tutor: 6 Tips for 1L Exam Success

Posted by Rob Barnett on 2/20/15 11:55 AM

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Anyone who’s ever considered law school has probably heard horror stories about that dreaded rite of passage: the first 1L exams.  At many schools – like my alma mater, Harvard Law School – a student’s entire grade for a first-year course rides on the final exam. Years of preparation, months of cases and cold calls, weeks or days of study – they all come down to three (or sometimes less) hours in December.  It can be pretty intimidating!

Fortunately, as a veteran law school tutor in Boston, I’m here to tell you: there’s hope! Whether you’ve read every footnote of every case in your 1L classes, or haven’t read one, there are six easy tips you can use to make the 1L exams – and the 2L, and 3L exams – manageable. Here are some of the best:

1. Understand the task.

A law school exam does require knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the law. All the debates and discussions you’ve had in the classroom and your study sessions – about the morality of the law, or its origins, or its most minute nuances – do matter when you’re sitting before your exam.  But, at heart, the law school exam is a TASK.  And, like any task, it can be mastered with specific strategies.

2: Prepare for the task.

Most professors have copies of old exams online; read them before you start studying for the exam.  My experience is that exams remain largely the same from year to year, so knowing what to expect when you sit down for the exam will be critical to help you prepare. Does your professor ask short-answer questions that need quick-fire knowledge of the cases?  Long issue-spotters that require you to sift through pages and pages of facts?  Policy essays that draw on your ability to see the larger picture behind the law? Something else? Every step of preparation you make for the final exam should be made with these questions – this task – in mind.

3: Condense your notes.

The typical law school exam covers three months of material in three hours. That’s a lot!  So you won’t have much time to page through long outlines – let alone casebooks – when you’re addressing issues quickly. You need something that’s as short and well-organized as possible, with only the most important information. You also need something that reminds you to look for any legal issues that may arise.  When I took exams, I’d bring in two documents (which I’d be happy to share): a list of every case we’d mentioned in class, with a line or two about the facts and holding, organized by topic; and a check list which went through every possible legal issue that might arise.  I’d compare my check list with the fact pattern on the exam, remind myself quickly of the cases that matter, and get straight to writing.

4: Show off your knowledge.

My first semester at Harvard, my Civil Procedure professor told our class that he wasn’t looking for the most reasonable answers out there.  In fact, he was looking for the opposite! He was looking for an exam bursting with ideas, both conventional and unconventional, that showcase a student’s ability to be creative with the law.  Of course, you need to evaluate which arguments are most reasonable and most far-fetched… but that’s one of the key skills of a lawyer to begin with! The more ideas you can raise, and evaluate, the better your law professor will know you know the law. 

5: Practice, practice, practice. 

The law school exam is a very tightly timed task.  Just like a standardized test, you need to be able to do a lot in a short amount of time… and the only way to understand that is to impose it on yourself. Find a nice desk in the law library, set a timer, and go.  See how you do under time pressure, then do it again.  You’ll soon realize how to pace yourself during an exam, and the practice of analyzing issues very quickly will pay off when you get to the actual exam. After you’re finished, review your answers with a friend or a law school tutor – or better yet, a model answer, these are like gold – and figure out what you can do better the next time around.

6: Be concise and organized.

Use headers, give each issue a separate paragraph, make your sentences short and easy to read. Your law professor will be reading hundreds of pages of hastily written analysis of complex legal issues: make your writing stand out for its clarity and simplicity.  It’s a great habit for all legal writing as well.

There are many more tips to give… but these are some of the best!  Those of you considering law school, take heart: with a few simple strategies, you too can master law school exams. And if you feel like you need help applying, consider contacting Cambridge Coaching. Our expert law school application consultants know how to guide you through the heady waters of the application process. Good luck,and happy exam taking! 

For more relevant law school tips from our law school application consultants and tutors in Boston and New York, check out these blog posts: A Law School Admissions Timeline; What Happens After Graduation?; How to Answer the “Why Do You Want to Attend X School?” Question.

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Tags: law school