by Carolyn Nygren
Since my professors spend so much time in class on the facts and the procedural issues of each case, that is what I need to know. I will prepare for exams by making an “outline” which will consist of summaries of the cases and my class notes.
In most courses, the details of the cases are the least important part of the course. “A” students may never mention a case name in most exams. Usually cases are in casebooks only as examples of the arguments lawyers make about legal theories.
You should prepare for exams by making an outline organized by legal theory. The requirements for liability under the theory should be framed in sentence form as a rule. Only then should you look to the cases for examples of the arguments lawyers have made about those requirements.
The more I know, the better grades I’ll get. The commercial outlines I see in the bookstore are 400 pages long! I need to learn at least that much to do well.
If you have this assumption, you will never think you know enough, and you will end up knowing too much. Many students are still memorizing their long outlines the night before the exam. They may know everything about the “trees”, but nothing about the “forest.”
You need a structure on which to attach any detail you learn. Without that structure you will get lost in trying to answer an exam question, and no knowledge of details will help you.
All I need to do before the exam is memorize my outline.
Law school professors do not reward rote memorization. You probably will be asked to read a short story (called an issue spotter), identify which legal theories are relevant to that story, and then evaluate the likelihood any character in the story is liable to any other character under those theories. Taking law school exams is a skill and, like any other skill, requires practice to perfect. If you did well on the LSAT, you probably took many sample exams. You should take your practice for law school exams as seriously as you did your practice for the LSAT.
The easiest way to practice is with one legal theory at a time. You can start this practice while are still reading the cases about that theory. All you need is a rule and a list of the requirements for liability. Your first task is to learn what words professors select to clue you that an element of a legal theory is clearly present in the fact pattern so you do not waste time discussing it at length in your answer. The next task is to learn what words professors select to clue you that an element is not clearly present in the fact pattern so you do spend your time discussing it in your answer. You will learn to do this best if you read short fact patterns where you know the writer’s intent; you know the legal theory you are supposed to use to answer the question, and you have either an answer or a list of complete notes for an answer. After you read the question and answer, you can practice writing.
It can’t be doing me any good if I know the answer before I write.
No matter how good a writer you were in another setting, you are a novice legal writer. The best way to become an expert is to start slowly. You should not be worrying about whether you know the law when you are learning how to write – although you may find that writing answers will actually help you learn the law.
First read an issue spotter question. Then read the answer or list of notes for the question. It will help if you then go back to the question and underline or somehow mark the words that were used in the answer. You will notice that very few sentences in the question are superfluous. If they are not necessary for your analysis of a legal theory, they are there to advance the story. You will find that sometimes sentences are there as red herrings (The answer uses them to show why a legal theory is not applicable.). After you are sure you understand the analysis, write out the answer in your own words. You will be surprised at how difficult this is at first. The more you practice, the easier it will be. Rules for the legal theory you are studying and rules for its elements will begin to flow from your pen. You will begin to develop a feel for the organization of an answer for the topic. If you work on each
legal theory separately at first, later you can learn to integrate the theories to answer a complex question similar to your final exam questions.
You may find that you need to construct your outline with the legal theories in an order different from the order your professor is using in class. For example, many contracts courses start with damages, but you can’t start analyzing contracts fact patterns with damages. Each of your courses has its organizational quirks, just as each of your professors has his or her idiosyncratic “take” on the law.
My school makes exams available, but the professors don’t give out answers. Therefore, I can’t use this method.
You can use a variation on this method if you regularly study with a group or you can put together a group to prepare for exams.
You can assign one question to everyone in the group. All will prepare a list of the legal theories they spot in the question. Under each legal theory they should have the rules for the theories and the words from the fact pattern they used to decide which legal theories were applicable. When the group meets, share your insights. What one person doesn’t find, another will. Then everyone should write out the answer. Again the group should meet to share. You can compare the structure of your answers and share the problems you had in working.
As you near exam time, practice under timed conditions. If the question you choose is an hour question, give everyone a half hour to prepare their notes for an answer. Then meet and share notes. Next everyone should take a half hour to write the answer. At this point in your exam preparation your major concern will be the structure of an answer to the complex questions of your professors. Your work will have paid off and you can feel satisfied that you can see how the course comes together.
Your work should save you from one of the biggest mistakes students make in exams. Students who have not practiced writing make the mistake of starting to write immediately in an exam. They see others writing and fear they are falling behind. However, the opposite is true. If you plan well before you write, you will see the problems before you start and work them into the organization of your answer. You can write quite fast when you know what you are writing. Those who start writing immediately will be the ones who fall behind as they are stopped in the middle of their answer by an issue they hadn’t seen.