What to expect from your law school final exams
A full semester of taking copious notes, reading, briefing, outlining, classroom discussions, and surviving the Socratic Method culminates in one final act. Writing law school final exams.
Most professors give essay exams for law school finals. Some are single-topic, short-answer questions. Others can go on for pages — known as issue-spotter exams. Some are taken in class, while others are take-home, allowing students more than the traditional amount of time to answer the essay questions. There are open-book and closed-book exams. And there are those few professors who create multiple-choice exams or (in rare cases) give oral exams.
Whatever type of exam your professor chooses to administer, you will be tested on your ability to analyze and resolve legal problems and demonstrate your grasp of the materials. Your course grade will be largely, if not exclusively, based on your final exam performance.
Here are some high-level tips to help you prepare for your law school final exams.
Understand your professor preferences
The foundation for success on your law school finals is to know who is grading the exam. Your mission is to make that person’s life easier. Ultimately, different professors prefer different types of answers. Some want extreme detail — every possible interpretation of every possible fact. Some like answers straight to the point within a page count. It’s okay to ask your professor.
It’s a given that all professors expect well-organized, legible answers, no matter how brief or expansive.
Read the facts 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. Applying the law to the facts presented is critical. And changing the facts even slightly could result in a completely different result.
Answer the question that is being asked
Always keep in mind the specific question you are actually being asked to answer. Although you may receive credit for ancillary information provided in your answer, you will only receive maximum credit if you specifically answer the question that is presented. Therefore, you must determine what role the professor is asking you to assume before answering. Are you the defendant’s attorney, or do you represent the plaintiff? Are you a judge trying to resolve the dispute? It makes a real difference in how you answer.
Attempts to include unrelated material in your answer could backfire if your professor believes you are incapable of ruling out irrelevant information.
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.
Complete your analysis and organization before you start writing
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.
Use the IRAC format for each issue raised
As you begin to write out your answer, we recommend you analyze each dispute using the IRAC method.
First, state the issue in precise legal terms (i.e., “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.
Next, state the applicable law. Be sure to define the pertinent elements of a rule as well as any terms of art.
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.
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.
Argue both sides of legal issues you spot and remember policy concerns
Once a dispute has been framed and a legal theory has been asserted, identify any problems surrounding the theory’s application as well as arguments that each side can make in support of their position.
Also, if time allows, include just a sentence or two regarding the policy implications of your conclusions. Law is meant to provide order in society and, when imposing laws, you should always predict the impact that they will have.
Take a deep breath and try not to panic
If you find yourself panicking, not understanding the issues presented or not remembering the rules related to such issues, don’t panic. Instead, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then, start working systematically through the information with these tips and give it your best.