Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Approaching Your First Law School Final Exam
Treat your first law school final exam as an opportunity to show your excellence in thinking and writing like a lawyer. Here are some guidelines for the coming weeks.
Put together the final pieces:
- Learn your professors' individual preferences. Should you use IRAC, IPRAC, CIRAC, or another organizing structure? Does your professor favor headings, abbreviations, or use of case names? Tailor your writing to their predilections.
- Take practice exams. Use the professor's previous exams if available, but any exam with complex fact patterns and multiple issues will be useful. After writing your answer, set it aside for a time, then evaluate it, treating it as if it were written by a stranger. Peers and professors can provide useful feedback.
- Distill your outline down to a one-page issue checklist or "attack outline" you can handwrite in 2-3 minutes. Memorize it.
- Gather the items you want to bring to the exam room, and make sure you understand what is permitted. Common items include power cords, earplugs, watches, cough drops, and water bottles.
- Don't stay up late cramming, because exhaustion hampers your ability to analyze. Do something fun for a few hours before bed and get a solid night's sleep.
- Give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam: you don't need the anxiety of fearing you'll be late. And, remembering Hofstadter's Law, then give yourself more time than you planned.
- The hours before the exam are for you and you only. Talk with classmates if you like, but don't feel you have to be sociable.
Approach the exam with confidence:
- "Brain dump" (3 minutes). As soon as the exam starts, jot down your issue checklist from memory, or read through it carefully if the exam is open-book. Starting the exam with the issue checklist in mind prevents panic and helps you approach the exam from a position of knowledge and confidence.
- Skim the exam and allocate your time (3 minutes). Look over the entire exam, noting the number of questions and the points or suggested time for each. Allocate your time according to the number and weight of questions. Write down the ending time for each section.
Devote quality time to reading and organizing:
- For each question, read the call of the question first to make your reading and issue-spotting more efficient.
- Read multiple times to spot issues and identify relevant facts. On the first read, immediately jot down the issues as you recognize them. Then read the fact pattern line by line, looking for relevant facts in every sentence. Mark every relevant fact and identify the issues, elements, or defenses raised by these facts.
- Consult your issue checklist. It may alert you to issues in the fact pattern you did not previously notice.
- On essay problems, spend 1/3 of your time reading/marking the fact pattern and outlining your answer. Don't rely on cut-and-paste to organize. Your exam outline can be sparse, consisting of just the issues, elements, and facts relevant to each. Don't waste time writing rules in the outline: save that for your written answer. Time dedicated to careful reading and outlining helps you craft a well-organized, thoughtful answer.
Show your excellence in essay answers:
- Follow instructions: they are vital, not surplusage.
- Make your answer easy to follow. Use headings for major issues. Treat issues and elements in logical order. Write simply and clearly.
- Think inside the box. Thoroughly discuss each issue before moving on to the next. For instance, don't let a discussion of the mailbox rule creep into a paragraph about consideration.
- Stick to the facts, and make sure you have them correct. Distorting the facts can make you miss issues entirely.
- Interweave specific facts with the rule. Instead of blanket assertions ("Alonzo's actions show Alaska was his domicile"), interweave parts of the rule with specific facts ("Alonzo's intent to remain in Alaska was shown by him buying a house and voting in local elections.")
- Use IRAC (or the organizing structure your professor prefers) for each issue. When resolving an issue requires detailed discussion of several elements, use mini-IRACS or sub-IRACs to work through each element's requirements.
- Issue -- Ask a question: if you conclude first, you may disregard facts or law that don't support your preconceptions.
- Rule -- Be concise but thorough. State the rule before, not midway through, the analysis.
- Analysis -- Explain how the rule applies to the specific facts. Explore any ambiguity in the law and the facts by going down each "fork in the road."
- Conclusion -- Limit your conclusion to one sentence; don't bring in new arguments or restate your analysis ad nauseam.
- Omit needless paragraphs and issues. Nix any introductory paragraph that merely restates the facts. Discuss only issues that arise from the fact pattern. This is not the time to regurgitate everything you know just because you know it.
- If it's hard, that's where the points are. Rejoice when an issue is difficult or when the facts or law seem ambiguous. Here's where you get to strut your stuff!
- Keep track of your time, and move on. If you find yourself running out of time on a question, concisely treat the most important remaining issues, then move to the next question.
After the exam, let it go. Don't fret or dwell on mistakes. Avoid discussing the exam with your classmates, for someone in the group (maybe you, maybe a friend) will always leave dispirited after such a conversation. Take several hours off, then tackle the next challenge with confidence. You are now one step closer to achieving your goal of being an excellent lawyer. (Nancy Luebbert)