Monday, April 30, 2012

Law profs explain what they think makes a good final exam answer

Top performing law students provided tips in the previous post on how to do well on final exams.  Now law profs offer their advice on what makes a top final exam answer courtesy of the Wall Street Journal Law Blog:

What Makes a Good Law School Exam Answer? Law Profs Weigh In

We checked in with a handful of professors around the country and asked them to complete the following sentence: “A good law exam answer is _______.”

Of course, none of these responses will, alone, unlock the key to success. And an A exam to one might be a B plus to someone else. But taken collectively, they just might shed some light on what the Great Professoriate is looking for. So here goes.

Heather Gerken, Yale: A good law exam answer is . . . evaluative. Too often, students walk through each answer as if all arguments are created equal. They don’t tell me which arguments are strong and which are weak, which facts matter and which don’t, which cases provide strong support for their claims and which ones are distinguishable. And they throw everything into the answer rather than think hard about what belongs and what doesn’t. Good lawyers don’t just know the substantive law; they also have good legal judgment. The mistake students make is not to exercise their own legal judgment in answering a question.

Richard Friedman, Michigan: A good law exam answer . . . answers the question. Banal as that sounds, many students take the question as an excuse to write a canned answer on some area in which they’ve learned the black-letter law. I tell my students, “Imagine you’re riding down an elevator with a boss who knows the law and who has told you the facts but wants your help in advising the client. Don’t repeat the facts to him. Don’t tell him the law. Apply the law to the facts.”

Eric Chiappinelli, Creighton: A good law exam answer . . . is one that does more than tells me what the law is (more or less well) and applies the law to the facts (more or less well) and then stops. The other 90 anonymous answers will do that. You should do two additional things: Tell me up front what the question really turns on – a choice between two applicable rules? Deciding what a particular word or phrase should mean? Then, at the end, give me your opinion of whether the result is good or fair or just. Cutting to the heart of a question immediately and expressing a value judgment about the result are what separate the A’s from the C’s.

Paul Secunda: Marquette: A good law exam answer . . . gets to maybe. By that I mean that too many law students have an undergraduate mentality and seek to figure out the one “right” answer for the question. The point of the law school exam is not necessarily to test for right and wrong answers, but to see whether the student is utilizing critical reasoning skills to understand all the possible issues that the question presents. The more you arrive at a “maybe” in your law exam, the more likely you are seeing all the sides of the question in your answer and will then receive the most exam points.”

Adam Winkler, UCLA: A good law exam answer . . . is rigorous and deep. By rigorous, I mean it references every applicable standard, test, and burden; analyzes every appropriate “branch” in the decision tree; and follows a sound logical structure. By deep, I mean it argues — not just concludes — how the legal rules apply to the facts; analogizes and distinguishes the most relevant cases; and addresses the best counterarguments. There is no “right” answer. It’s all about the argument.

Get additional insight from more law profs by clicking here.


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A good exam answer responds to the question that is asked. If asked to identify facts that are required, identify the facts and don't get into what is "good or fair or just." If asked to identify the flaw in reasoning offered by an attorney or client, explain the flaw; don't simply expound black letter law and don't waste time and space praising the portions of the attorney's that are valid. If asked to reach a conclusion, reach it; to the surprise of some law faculty, sometimes there are answers, and clients don't want to pay practitioners to tilt against windmills, as the ability to identify a result is something practitioners do much more often than framing arguments for what the law should be. If asked to identify the chances of X prevailing, don't waste time focusing on Y's situation.

Posted by: Jim Maule | May 1, 2012 8:00:09 AM

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