7.2 – Basic Exam-Taking Guidance


Basic Exam-Taking Guidance

We're going to spend the bulk of this class trying to teach you how to take an exam successfully using an actual practice exam. Ideally, you will actually sit down and take that practice exam before you go further. I do want you to listen to this lesson before you go and take that practice exam. You're going to find the experience of taking a law school practice exam is a little overwhelming. You're not going to be really sure what to do, how to write a law school exam answer. To some extent, that's just inevitable and you're going to have that experience, and I'd much rather you have that experience now than have that experience when you actually sit down to take a real graded law school exam because you're going to have trouble recovering from it if it's your first experience there.

I can at least try to give you some tips now that I think will help prepare you to know what you're trying to do with a law school exam. Let's talk about the two different types of questions in a law school exam briefly, and then we're going to go into a lot more detail on those in the lessons to come.

Law school exams typically have a couple of different kinds of questions, issue-spotter-type questions and policy questions.

Regarding Issue-Spotter Questions

Analyzing given fact pattern to ascertain legal claims and verdicts

We've talked already about the difference between issue-spotter questions and policy questions, but just to remind you, an issue-spotter question presents you with some fact pattern and then asks you to approach the fact pattern from some perspective and analyze it, and maybe say what the legal claims are that come out of that fact pattern, or say who would win, or so forth.

The idea is you're supposed to identify discrete legal issues and say what the correct answer is in terms of how those issues come out. Let's talk about first how you would approach that. You get a fact pattern and then you get some kind of prompt. The prompt might say, "You're a lawyer for one of the parties or you're a judge analyzing these claims." How would you write an exam answer doing that?

(1) Loosely structure as per Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion style, (2) should be organized and well structured

First of all, you'd want to write it in the same way that you'd do any kind of good writing, which is you'd want it to be organized and well structured. That might suggest starting off with some introductory paragraph that maybe sums up what your conclusions are. Maybe you write that at the end after you've actually determined what your conclusions are, but any good piece of writing has an intro that sets things up and that situates the reader. A good intro might say, "I've analyzed the claims. I think party A is likely to win on this issue for this key reason, and therefore I'm going to recommend that the judge should dismiss the case," or something like that if it's a question where you've been asked to write a memo to a judge.

Use the prompt to shape what it looks like. Then, you will have a series of paragraphs where you are going to go through issues. With respect to how those are structured, there is a very common way that people structure law school exams, which is called IRAC. The idea there is you structure it, Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion. You will have a sentence where you're identifying the issues, say, the first issue is whether they're standing to bring the suit. Then you state a legal rule that you've learned. You state that in a separate sentence, and then you do some analysis where you say, "Here's how these facts map onto that legal rule." Then you reach a conclusion at the end. You just keep going like that.

I don't think that you always strictly have to follow that exact structure, but I think that's probably a pretty good rule of thumb, and law students tend to run into trouble where they mush different things together. They start talking about how the analysis goes without ever stating a legal rule clearly. The reason that you want to state a legal rule clearly and separately from your analysis is to make sure that you have told the professor, "Hey, I know the law. I learned what I was supposed to learn in this class." It's also useful more generally, not just in an exam. It's a useful way to do legal writing more generally because you're signaling to the reader, you're explaining your reasoning, you're explaining how you get from point A to point B, whereas if you just jump right into your analysis, it can often be very, very hard to follow. That's a good place to start.

Start up with some kind of introductory paragraph, and then as you identify issues, write paragraphs on each one where you spot the issue and explain. Sometimes your analysis is going to be more than a few sentences. Your analysis could end up being several paragraphs if it's a really hard issue. One of those grey areas I talked about, and that's fine. Spend as long as it takes but, basically, stick with that general idea of identifying issues, stating a legal rule, and then applying them, and then also making clear what your conclusion is. I think that's going to guide you through how to write an issue-spotter-type exam answer.

Policy Questions

Providing normative evaluation of rules and making policy proposals

Then, you're going to have policy questions. A policy question might be "Make some recommendation about a policy proposal, provide some normative evaluation about whether you think something is a good or bad change, make an argument of what you think the best rule is." Basically, something that isn't just asking you to figure out what the correct legal answer is but something that ends up involving you thinking about what the legal answer should be, what the law should be, how the law should be changed, and so forth. How would you structure such an exam answer? Here, I think you have more options, but the basic advice would be you'd structure this the way you'd structure an essay.

Structured essay has (1) introduction, (2) reasoning, (3) conclusion

You've, presumably, if you're in law school or you're going to law school, unless you've had an unusual educational background, you've had to write essays. You've had to write academic essays before. There's just basic rules for how essays are structured. Again, introductory paragraph and then paragraphs that move through your reasoning. You don't do IRAC for this kind of essay, but nonetheless, for each paragraph, you might want to have a topic sentence at the beginning that really explains what's your point. Your introduction is, "I recommend that the legislature adopt this rule change for three key reasons," and you summarize them.

Then, your paragraphs are, "The first reason the legislature should adopt this rule change is it would promote fairness." Then, you have a paragraph or two where you really walk through why you think this would be fairer. "The second reason is this rule would promote good incentives for the parties," then you walk people through that. "The third reason is—" and you give some third reason, and so forth. Whatever it is, again, really clearly walk the reader through your reasoning, use your first sentence of your paragraph to really highlight what you're talking about, and so if someone reads it, they're really not in any confusion about how you get from point A to point B.

I know all this is a lot easier to describe than to actually do. There is no substitute for actually doing it, but this at least gives you some idea of the task you're being asked to perform. What you should do now is go actually try to do it. We've prepared a practice exam for you. The idea behind this practice exam is, all you really need to know is you need to have read the Jewell case that we talked about earlier in this course. Then, go listen to the first three classes of the 7Sage criminal law course that explains some pretty high-level general principles of criminal law. With that knowledge in hand, do a little bit of studying of that.

Concluding Remarks

That, basically, is what you need to know to take a stab at answering this exam question, and then just go take it. Go take it under realistic conditions. We've given you two hours, that's not a lot of time. It's going to feel overwhelming. You're going to feel like you don't have enough time to do everything you want to do. Again, we're just trying to make this feel like the real law school experience, so you feel really, really prepared when you take a real exam down the road. Just go at it, do your best, and remember this one isn't actually graded. The most important thing is that you learn something from the experience and not that you get the absolute perfect answer. Good luck and have fun.

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