February 24, 2013
Leave Your Point of View at the Fact Pattern Door: Part 2 of 2 (Guest post by Seth Aiken, UMass Law)
In the first installment of this post, I suggested that for some law students, life experience and a strongly held point of view can get in the way of law school success. “Older” students, having lived and worked and experienced a little more than most of their peers can tend to let their own point of view and perceptions about the world interfere with legal reasoning. Rather than seeing the legally significant issues in a fact pattern, they focus on the implausibility of the facts and how unlikely or unfair a scenario seems in the context of their own experience or personal values.
With these students, my strategy is to have them start by adding a phrase to the beginning of the first sentence of every essay question, “On an island that you’ve never been to and where no visitors ever go…(essay question begins). I want them to remember that a fact pattern is a closed universe and that adding facts or injecting personal insights into it will only derail their best efforts.
Then I give my students five steps for looking at a fact pattern and drawing out the legally important issues:
- Call of the Question – Start at the end of the exam and read the call of the question so you understand what you are being asked to do.
- Acts – Rather than trying to spot and analyze whole issues, start instead by reading the fact pattern sentence-by-sentence and highlighting any act or failure to act by a party – anything someone in your fact pattern says, does, or chooses not to do.
- Resist Judgment – You do not have enough information yet to know whether any of these acts give rise to a legally significant issue. Resist making any judgment about whether the act is relevant, worthwhile, good, bad or otherwise because all you know right now, is that somebody said or did something.
- Elements – Assuming you studied and know all the elements of every issue you might be tested on, go to each act and consider if it could be one element of an issue. Remember, don’t skip or overlook an act just because it seems like a little thing. The seriousness or severity of the action doesn’t matter. Whether you think the action would lead to a legal action in real life doesn’t matter. What matters is whether that act in the fact pattern, taken at face value could satisfy one element of something you are being tested on. On the other hand, you don’t want to force an issue that simply isn’t relevant. Some facts ARE there to tempt you into a time-wasting, grade-crushing wild goose chase. In order to stay on target, ask:
a) Is the issue you’re thinking about within the testable universe? (i.e. DO NOT analyze a Criminal Law issue in a Torts exam.)
b) Is this issue relevant to the call of the question? (i.e. DO NOT discuss the rights of B vs. C when the question is asking only about the rights of A vs. B.)
c) Are there other facts that satisfy each of the other necessary elements to make out this issue? DO NOT speculate about other elements based on your common sense or some past experience.
Success vs. Relevance – This is the fifth and final step I ask my students to think about because I want the word “success” to trigger a few different cautionary flags.
The success of the issue: Just because a complaining party has a weak case (weak elements) and is likely to lose doesn’t mean the issue isn’t worth raising. If you can make a good faith, “straight-faced” argument that each of your elements is supported by some fact or facts, it is probably a relevant issue, win or lose. In fact if you can make a good faith argument that MOST of your elements are supported by facts, you should raise the issue. Weak facts or a missing element bear on the success of an issue, but are never a reason to not raise it. Being able to explain to your professor why an issue fails is just as important as being able to show why an issue succeeds.
The successes a student brings into the exam: You are walking into the exam with a point of view based in your life experience. Your successes and accomplishments have equipped you to identify and solve many challenging problems, to relate to people and empathize with their circumstances. HOWEVER – here in this exam, you must leave those successes and accomplishments behind. Relating to the people in your fact pattern and empathizing with their circumstances will distract you from seeing what is relevant and keep you from engaging in effective legal analysis.
Seth-Thomas Aitken, UMass School of Law - Dartmouth
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