Monday, November 23, 2020
Continuing last week’s post, students looking to develop and/or refine their exam-taking plan of attack may want to consider the following:
- Reading and dissecting the fact pattern. Once you have selected a question, begin by reading the prompt closely. If you know what the “ask” is upfront, you can read with more intention. You also avoid the surprise of reading the fact pattern, reaching the prompt, and having to re-read the fact pattern again because the prompt asks something you did not expect. Next, read the fact pattern carefully. As you read, question everything! There are not a lot of “extra” facts in a law school fact pattern so ask yourself what your professor wanted you to take away from each sentence. Are the facts triggering an issue? Are they relevant to your analysis of an issue? Are they relevant to a counterargument? Does the framing of the facts create an ambiguity ripe for analysis? Remember, if an issue is triggered by the facts, you are expected to analyze it in your response. Pay special attention to names, dates, dollar amounts, and quoted/excerpted language. If your professor took the time to give someone a name, that name should probably appear somewhere in your answer. If your professor gives you a specific date or dollar amount, such details might have legal significance (e.g., statutes of limitation, timing for contract formation, statutory period for adverse possession, time to serve a responsive pleading, amount in controversy requirement, applicability of the statute of frauds for goods transactions). Finally, if your professor takes the time to tell you exactly what something or someone said, there is likely a reason why.
- Tracking issues. The facts will trigger multiple issues in each exam question so your attack plan should include a method of keeping track of the issues that you spot (e.g., by numbering, creating an issue list in the margins). As a rule of thumb, you should plan to spend roughly 15 minutes per hour that is suggested on your pre-write phase: reading, issue spotting, and “outlining” your answer (i.e. ordering the issues and creating an exam structure). Do not skimp on this time. Professors can tell when students do not outline their answers because such responses are often poorly organized. The exam-taking experience is also much more frenetic for the student.
- Tracking facts. Consider how you might create visual cues to identify the specific facts that are relevant to each issue you spot. You could use a color-coding method, numbering method, symbol method, etc. to identify the facts from the fact pattern that are relevant to your analysis of each issue. Do not overcomplicate this process—choose a method that is efficient and functional. Incorporating a method for tracking facts can be an especially helpful practice when you encounter a long fact pattern because it can reduce the amount of time you spend re-reading the fact pattern in search of facts relevant to your analysis.
- Ordering issues. The order in which issues appear in a fact pattern probably will not be the same order that makes the most sense, structurally, for your analyses to appear in your answer. Consequently, your plan of attack should include a step for ordering the issues you spot. Keep in mind any directives your professor gives you in the prompt about ordering (e.g., beginning with the strongest claim, analyze all claims Tanya can bring against Sasha). If you have a broad prompt that contains no directives about how to order issues (e.g., analyze all potential claims), then the relationships among or chronology of concepts can help with ordering.
- Creating an answer skeleton. Once you have ordered the issues you spotted, create headings in your exam answer. Consider whether each issue you spotted will need its own heading and whether particular issues should be grouped together under one heading. Keep your headings short and sweet—they need not be in complete sentences.
- Fleshing out your answer skeleton. Before you begin adding the meat to the bones of your answer skeleton, consider the order in which you fill in your answer skeleton. Though it may make sense, structurally, for issues to be arranged in a particular order, you should analyze issues from biggest/most obvious to smallest/least obvious. The more obvious an issue is, the higher the likelihood that your professor expects most—if not all—students to spot and analyze the issue in their answers. The more time and space in the fact pattern your professor devotes to articulating facts relevant to the analysis of a specific issue, the more there is to unpack and analyze (and thus, the bigger the issue).
While there is no magic blueprint for creating an effective plan of attack, these points will help students develop an effective exam strategy. The more a student practices and works to refine their attack plan, the more poised and prepared that student will be when exam day arrives. Students may not have control over what facts they will encounter on the exam or how their professors will test them on a given issue, but they do have control over their overall preparedness for the exam and development of a system for taking the exam. So, to students I say: focus on that which is within your control.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)