Sunday, December 7, 2008

Beyond IRAC: Law School Exam Taking Tips

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

It's that time of year when law school professors (including me) procrastinate and whine about grading, even though it's one of the few burdens that fall upon us in our privileged lives.  I thought I would procrastinate in a useful way as I make my way through another round of bluebooks.  Here are some tips that go beyond the old IRAC/TREAC saws (even though thar's truth in them thar saws!):

1.  When the professor tells you how much each question is worth, take it seriously!  In particular, there is a tendency to devote disproportionately too much time to small questions at the beginning, sort of like going out too fast in the first mile of a 10K race.  For example, I always assign 180 points to my three hour exams, so that the points roughly equal the amount of time to be devoted.  If the first contracts law question has only 10 points assigned, it's unlikely the professor has in mind that you write the history of consideration law since the days of assumpsit - take a minute to figure out what the most obvious point of the question is, and write for 10, not 30, minutes on it.

2.  When the professor asks you to consider the claims plaintiff may make against a list of potential defendants, put yourself in the shoes of the the plaintiff, and again, start with the most obvious and work your way to the more subtle.  The reason is that you pick up more issues this way.  What I see a lot is students picking up on the most obvious issue that springs from the facts, say, a piercing the corporate veil issue to get to the shareholders, jump right to it and forget to discuss what claims the plaintiff has against the corporation itself, thus missing a chunk of possible points.  Again, put yourself in the position of the plaintiff.  Who do I sue first most obviously?  Where are the issues in that?  Then who else do I go after?

3.  Don't try to be funny.  Trust me.  Even though my class is one-part stand-up comedy to two parts substance, I get no comic relief from witticisms (even your repeating my own) in the exam.  It doesn't hurt you; it just wastes your valuable time.

4.  Organize, organize, organize.  You wouldn't believe the advantage that comes from having the issues separated by paragraph headings or outline notation.  Chances are that the professor has a sample answer or outline split up into issues.  Even you don't write your answer in the same order, having the issues split out lets us see clearly what you got and what you didn't.  (This, of course, assumes you have something relevant to say.  They say in practice: when you have the law, argue the law; when you have the facts, let them speak, and when you have neither, pound on the table.  The exam analog would be:  (1) when you know the material, show it; (2) if you have style, use it; and (3) if you have neither, puke all over the bluebook.)

Where I notice this particularly is in big "issue-spotter" questions with complex facts in the second half of the exam, when students are already tired.  This is where you really want to suck it up and resist your impulse to blow chunks all over the page.  Instead, take a deep breath.  Slow down for a couple minutes and write an outline of the answer in the margin before digging in.

5.  For God's sake, if you have terrible handwriting, invest in a Mavis Beacon typing course.  The reality is that grading is very much art surrounded by a patina of science.  By and large, a couple points on the exam here and there won't make a big difference.  I feel very, very confident that my exams create a representative continuum.  But there are arbitrary calls at the margins, particularly when you have to turn numerical scores into letter grades.  Why let that go against you because the professor got frustrated trying to make sense of a test that looks like Linear A or Hammurabi's Code in the original cuneiform?  (To be clear, I have no prejudice against handwritten exams; I have given just as many As on handwritten as typed and I've seen typed exams that look like the old "12 monkeys will eventually type the Encyclopaedia Brittanica" story.  But it's far more common to have unintelligible handwriting than unintelligible typing.)

Well, back to the salt mine.

P.S.:  If it makes any of my students feel better, I have had the recurring dream every night this week in which it is now the end of the semester, the exam is coming up, and I realize that I have never prepared for or gone to the advanced math class that meets on Mondays at 10:00 a.m.

P.P.S.:  Question for ABA Journal - Is this an example of slipping off topic?

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Jeff Lipshaw has a pretty interesting and entertaining post on test taking on the Legal Profession Blog. It focuses on fact pattern type essay questions, but has some applications that are more general. Certainly, there is a lot that can be said on thi... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 8, 2008 10:43:36 AM


Great post, Jeff. I am going to go post it on TWEN for my soon-to-be-tested law students in Torts. I do not find it to be off-topic at all.

Oh, and as an aside, on Nov. 27 you replied to part of my insightful cranberry post as follows: "I just thought I ought to point out that the cranberry sauce post, like a holiday fruit cake, is recycled from two years ago." That was true and I appreciated your calling me out.

P.S. You also wrote this in a June 14, 2007 post:
"I never missed an exam or a class, but thirty years post school, I am still having the recurring dream that I have forgotten to go to a math class for the entire semester, and am facing the final exam."

Don't mess with me, Lipshaw.

--Alan Childress

Posted by: Legal Profession Prof | Dec 7, 2008 9:37:05 AM

LOL. You know, the fruit cake joke was a turkey when I made it, and I deserve to have the stuffing beat out of me. Plus it was too subtle, meaning that I zinged you with a congealed weapon. One could say I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam, but no, a friend getting his back up makes me want to make a clean breast of it, even if I have to wing it in a comment like this. So here's it goes:

Alan: I made a gravy error. Please spare me from further ribbing or roasting, as I have saute your forgiveness.

Yr friend,


Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 7, 2008 10:45:12 AM


Posted by: Alan Childress | Dec 7, 2008 11:06:14 AM

I must admit that when I was in Law School (many many moons ago), I started my first year typing my exam answers...I typed just fine, but I did terrible. When I moved to the bluebook, it gave my grades a noticeable lift. I never quite understood it, as my handwriting was (and is) really, really bad...

Posted by: Larry Stratton | Dec 7, 2008 8:25:29 PM

As to your question about the ABA Journal, Jeff, here is the link to vote for LPB in their contest.

Posted by: Legal Profession Prof | Dec 8, 2008 7:52:11 AM

A few points off, professor, for using Linear A. At least Linear B is generally understood and agreed upon. Linear A makes a poor partner for the otherwise well understood Akkadian of Hammurabi's code. Otherwise, very salient advice!

Posted by: King Minos | Dec 8, 2008 7:52:29 AM

Exam advice is always appreciated. Let's see if they help with my Wills and Trusts final in two hours. Thanks.

Posted by: DePaul 2L | Dec 8, 2008 9:38:40 AM

Maybe your students just aren't very funny. I've gotten a 3.9 or a 4.0 on every exam that I've been able to insert good jokes. Not suggesting that a good joke will save a terrible essay, but someone who can write a good essay *and* come up with something amusing to say, timed and under pressure, should get a slight bump. It's a calculated risk and not everyone likes it, sure, but the professors I thought were the most intellectually engaging appreciated cleverness generally.

Posted by: NadaBear | Dec 8, 2008 1:42:27 PM

Another good idea is to check out the professor's past exams to get an idea of his/her questions style. They should be available in the reference section of the campus library.

For more free tips, see

Posted by: Best Legal Aid | Jan 5, 2009 2:43:04 PM

I agree with tip number 4. It is good to organise your work this saves stress. My personal tip is to make a mind map about the topic you are studying. This creates a good overview.

Posted by: Boy | Sep 17, 2013 7:58:00 AM

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