5 Tips to Writing Top-Notch Law School Essay Exams

Tips and advice on Writing Essays

[ Juliana Del Pesco, BARBRI International Legal Manager, Americas ]

A semester of reading, briefing cases and preparing outlines all culminates in one final act: Writing law school final exams. Most law school exams call for essay-type responses as a test of your ability to analyze and resolve legal problems.

You will be required to demonstrate your grasp of the materials you studied throughout the semester, along with your ability to provide lawyer-like solutions to precise legal issues. Your class grade will be largely, if not exclusively, based on your final exam performance, so be sure you are properly prepared with these exam-writing tips.

#1 – READ AND ANALYZE THE PROBLEM CAREFULLY

Read the entire problem through once rather quickly to get a general understanding. Focus on the question you are being asked to respond to at the end of the problem. Then, read through the scenario again, slowly and carefully. This time, evaluate every word and phrase to identify all potential issues. Always keep in mind the specific question you are actually being asked to answer.

#2 – ORGANIZE YOUR THOUGHTS

Organization is critical to writing a strong essay answer. After all, if the professor cannot follow your analysis, how can they grade it fairly and appropriately?

Before you start writing, chart the issues in the manner in which you will resolve them. Again,  make sure the issues are related to the actual question you are being asked to answer. Arrange the issues in the sequence in which you would expect a court to address them (i.e., normally, jurisdictional issues first, then liability, then remedies). Capture the points you will discuss in sufficient detail to prompt you to think the problem through to a fair and practical solution.

BARBRI has developed a quick outlining system called Issue T to help students organize their thoughts for essay writing. In the Issue T, you state the rule implicated at the top, list the elements that comprise that rule on the left side of the “T”, and list all of the supporting, relevant facts on the right side of the “T”:

#3 – START WRITING ONLY WHEN YOUR ANALYSIS AND ORGANIZATION ARE COMPLETE

You may find that you devote a solid one-fourth of the time allocated to reading, analyzing the problem and organizing your answer. That’s okay. A logical organization and clear expression of ideas will strengthen your answer. This purposeful approach may even bolster an answer that’s somewhat weak.

#4 – AS YOU BEGIN TO WRITE, USE THE I-R-A-C FORMAT FOR EACH ISSUE RAISED

Issue. First, state the issue in precise legal terms (e.g., “Did the defendant’s mistake in computing his bid prevent the formation of an enforceable contract?”). Be careful to avoid generalizations or oversimplification of the issue.

Rule. Next, state the applicable law. Be sure to define the pertinent elements of a rule as well as any terms of art. Consider and discuss ALL relevant views, making certain that you express the underlying rationale behind each divergent view or rule of law.

Application. Then, apply the rules to the facts using arguments. Avoid the common error of stating a rule and then jumping straight to the conclusion.. Your professor will not infer a supporting argument for you—you must spell it out. Remember to use the Issue T you created earlier to remind you to discuss  which facts in the fact pattern support (or prevent) application of the rule. Discuss and weigh each fact given and the logical inference to be drawn from it. Be sure to include counterarguments where possible.

Conclusion. Finally, come to a straightforward conclusion on each issue. Make sure you have clearly answered the question asked, and you have not left an issue hanging. If a number of outcomes are possible, discuss the merits of each, but always select one position as your conclusion and state why. In close cases, it is generally best to select the most practical and fair conclusion. Just don’t consider yourself bound by the “general rule” or “majority view” in answering an exam unless the question clearly calls for such.

#5 – OTHER HELPFUL TIPS AND VALUABLE RESOURCES

Budget your time, but don’t be concerned if you notice that others begin writing before you do. Law professors are usually focused more on the quality rather than the length of a student’s answer. They will appreciate that you stick to the issues and emphasize what counts to provide the most succinct, yet appropriate, exam response.

Last but certainly not least, make sure your answer is legible. If your school gives you the option to handwrite or type your exams, I recommend typing your exam. Your professor won’t be impressed by the logic of an answer that cannot be easily read.

For effective 1L school resources, learn about the BARBRI 1L Mastery Package.

For more law school tips specifically for LL.M.s, download the free BARBRI LL.M. Guide.

ABOUT BARBRI

BARBRI has helped more than 1.3 million lawyers around the world pass a U.S. bar exam. The company also provides online J.D., post-J.D., and international programs for U.S. law schools and specialized ongoing training and certifications in areas such as financial crime prevention and eDiscovery.

To help LL.M. students determine which BARBRI course may be best to pass a U.S. state bar exam, check out our blog: BARBRI EXTENDED BAR PREP AND 8-WEEK BARBRI BAR REVIEW: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

How Do You Outline In Law School?

[ Juliana Del Pesco, BARBRI International Legal Manager, Americas ]

It’s a time-honored tradition in law school and one of the most crucial exam preparation steps. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about law school outlines.

Outlining simply is synthesizing and meshing course material so you can access details quickly and digest concepts broadly. This process helps you master complex course material by organizing it into something meaningful and understandable for you … and, ultimately, to study for final exams.

A law school outline should consist of things like:

  • the rules from the cases you study
  • your summarized class notes
  • the professor’s hypotheticals
  • any other material that the professor has brought into discussions or alluded to in lectures

Almost every professor will tell you to start outlining early in the semester. Creating your own outline, rather than borrowing, is highly recommended. It may be time consuming but expressing the relevant principles of the law in your own words will help your comprehension and understanding.

Here are our recommended steps:

#1 – GATHER THE FACTS

It’s difficult to build out a meaningful outline without some substance. First, gather all of your foundational information in one place — including your case briefs, class notes, casebook, and maybe a study aid like your BARBRI outline or a handed-down outline. For help acquiring outlines that make the most sense for your classes, you can start by reaching out to your professors. BARBRI also provides great outlines as part of the 1L Mastery Package.

#2 – CREATE A FRAMEWORK

The table of contents in your casebook already has the makings of an outline so you can easily use it as the foundation for yours. It clearly lays out the major area of law, the related subtopics, and where all the cases fit into the discussion. If your professor teaches to a course syllabus rather than following a table of contents, lay out your outline using the syllabus in a similar manner.

#3 – STATE THE RULE, THOROUGHLY

Add a clear and complete statement defining the rule of law (e.g., “Battery is ….”). Do this for each rule based on what has been laid out by your professor, a case you read, information you gathered from a commercial outline (such as the outline in 1L Mastery) or hornbook, or some other source (e.g., Use of the Socratic Method in the classroom). It’s critical that you understand and can clearly state the rule.

#4 – BREAK DOWN THE RULE INTO ITS ELEMENTS

Next, break down the rule itself into its component parts, or elements. Each element then needs to be defined (e.g., List out all four elements of battery and what they entail). The order should follow the way in which the elements were laid out in class by your professor, or how they track in your casebook. It will serve you well on your final exam to take the time to dissect each rule in this way. You’ll likely be asked to write about an element or elements of battery on the essay exam rather than the rule itself.

#5 – FOLLOW EACH ELEMENT WITH SOME HYPOTHETICALS

Law school exams are based around hypothetical situations. The more practice you have, the more comfortable you’ll be in applying law from cases to new hypotheticals when you encounter them on your exams. You’ll have to grapple with unusual fact patterns and be able to determine which rule should be used to solve the problem created by those facts. I personally found the practice of illustrating how the rule works to be very helpful as a way to truly understand and learn the rules of law.

OTHER TIPS AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Skip the case briefs and don’t include case names or citations in your outline unless you believe your professor will expect you to know this.

Remember, your objective is to summarize the law you have learned in one cohesive review tool that will enable you to be successful on exam day.

If you’re an LL.M. student,  download the free BARBRI LL.M. Guide for more tips.

ABOUT BARBRI

BARBRI has helped more than 1.3 million lawyers around the world pass a U.S. bar exam. The company also provides online J.D., post-J.D., and international programs for U.S. law schools and specialized ongoing training and certifications in areas such as financial crime prevention and eDiscovery.

To help LL.M. students determine which BARBRI course may be best to pass a U.S. state bar exam, check out our blog: BARBRI EXTENDED BAR PREP AND 8-WEEK BARBRI BAR REVIEW: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Techniques for Briefing a Case

[ Juliana Del Pesco, BARBRI International Legal Manager, Americas ]

The case brief is a necessary part of studying U.S. law. You will undoubtedly hear the term regularly during your time in law school. Quite simply, a case brief is a set of notes you take on each assigned case to ensure you are paying attention to what’s important.

This study aid is meant to help you encapsulate and analyze the mountain of material you will be expected to digest and recall as a law student. The case brief is the end result of reading a case, re-reading it, taking it apart, and putting it back together again. In addition to being a useful tool for self-instruction and referencing, the case brief also provides a valuable “cheat sheet” for class participation. With a few techniques in hand, you will be able to master the art of briefing cases to be well on your way to owning class discussions.

CREATE A BRIEFING SYSTEM THAT WORKS FOR YOU

Often, a case is misread because the student fails to break it down into its essential elements. The use of a briefing system can get you in the habit of dissecting the case sufficiently for analytical purposes. There are many different ways to brief a case. You should find the format that is most useful for your class and exam preparations.

Here are the elements of a brief that I have found to be the most effective:

  • Facts: Briefly state the name of the case and its parties, what happened factually and procedurally leading to the controversy, and the judgment. This information is necessary because legal principles are defined by the situations in which they arise, and a fact is legally relevant if it had an impact on the case’s outcome. For example, in a personal injury action arising from a car accident, the color of the parties’ cars seldom would be relevant to the case’s outcome. Similarly, if the plaintiff and defendant presented different versions of the facts, you should describe those differences that are relevant to the court’s consideration of the case.
  • Trial Court: State the judgment or decision in the case. Did the court decide in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant? What remedy, if any, did the court grant?
  • Issue: State the issue or issues raised on appeal. This is where you will describe the opinion you are briefing. In this section of the brief, state the factual and legal questions that the court had to decide. To analyze a case properly, you want to break it down to its component parts. Be sure to stick to the relevant issue or issues because these are the ones for which the court made a final decision and which are binding.
  • Rule: In a sentence or two, state the legal principle or the applied rule of law on which the court relied to reach its answer (the holding).
  • Rationale: You now should describe why the court arrived at its holding. This section of the case brief may be the most important, because you must understand the court’s reasoning to be able to analyze it and apply it to other fact situations, such as those you will see on the bar exam.
  • Objective Theory: Concurring and dissenting opinions can present an interesting alternative analysis or theory of the case. Therefore, you should describe the analysis in your case brief. It will help you see the case in a different light.

KEEP YOUR BRIEFS BRIEF

To be most effective, case briefs must be brief. Don’t attempt a detailed restatement of the entire case. Rather, try to capture the gist of the facts and the court’s reasoning in as few words as possible, but with enough detail to discuss in class and integrate into your class notes. Here are 4 Ways To Brief Cases Even Faster.

DON’T WORRY IF YOUR FIRST BRIEFS AREN’T PERFECT

Most professors will promote the value of briefing but will never actually ask to see that you have, in fact, briefed. Remember, you are the person that the brief will serve, and briefing is a skill you will develop as you become more comfortable reading cases.

If you’re an LL.M. student,  download the free BARBRI LL.M. Guide to learn more about briefing cases and other law school techniques. And be sure to take a look at these 4 Tips To Make The Most Out Of Your Law School Classes.

ABOUT BARBRI

BARBRI has helped more than 1.3 million lawyers around the world pass a U.S. bar exam. The company also provides online J.D., post-J.D., and international programs for U.S. law schools and specialized ongoing training and certifications in areas such as financial crime prevention and eDiscovery.

To help LL.M. students determine which BARBRI course may be best to pass a U.S. state bar exam, check out our blog: BARBRI EXTENDED BAR PREP AND 8-WEEK BARBRI BAR REVIEW: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Make school easier, less expensive — without the trial-and-error.

When entering law school, many students don’t know what to expect. They haven’t been able to attain relevant advice and aren’t sure of the ways, if any, law school varies from undergraduate. Most students plan to dive in — and hope to succeed — using trial-and-error. That’s not really the wisest approach. Here are several more proven ways to help make law school life much easier.

STARTING FAST AND GETTING AHEAD.

First year law school grades are by far the most crucial. A high GPA is a requisite for big firm jobs and many law reviews and journals. If you fail to do well your first year or even just your first semester, it is incredibly difficult to bring up your GPA.

There’s always the opportunity to catch on faster and get ahead for what’s coming next, what to do and how to do it. At any point during 1L year, you can still take BARBRI Law Preview to better position yourself for success. In just a week, it teaches proven academic strategies and how to take law school exams. It also gives an overview of 1L classes and offers personal service and support throughout law school. Essentially, to use a metaphor, students who use Law Preview are typically the first out of the gate, while other students are still learning to run.

SAVING MONEY ON SUPPLEMENTS.

Many students will wait until the last minute to enroll in or think about a bar review course. But keep in mind all that you’ll be getting: BARBRI offers a laundry list of study aids and resources. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of first-year students who spent an extraordinary amount of money on supplements. You don’t need to do that. Simply enroll in BARBRI and sign up for the 1L Mastery Package (free for a limited time) to start using highly-effective study tools — ready-to-use outlines for all first-year classes, on-demand video lectures for all 1L subjects, plus essay and multiple-choice practice questions. Download the BARBRI Mobile App, too, for added convenience and flexibility in how and where you want to study.

MAKING SURE YOU GRASP THE MATERIAL.

In school, there are always a few professors with whom you might not mesh well. In those situations, you’ll often feel that you don’t fully comprehend the material after lecture and must teach yourself the information. BARBRI professors delivering online video lectures (with 1L Mastery) offer a third alternative. Chances are that if a professor at your school does not fit your learning style for a particular subject, a BARBRI professor will.

STAYING ON TRACK EVERY YEAR.

BARBRI doesn’t just offer material for your 1L year. We also have all the same resources for many of your 2L and 3L classes, such as Evidence, Constitutional Law, and Criminal Procedure. Additionally, BARBRI has a free MPRE Review course to help students pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) that’s required by almost every state and jurisdiction.

Getting a head start on law school by using Law Preview and then using BARBRI’s materials can help you lower your stress and financial expense, get you on the right track immediately and help you stay ahead of the curve throughout your law school career.