Let’s just get it out there: law school grading is kind of absurd. In how many other disciplines will one final exam determine all (or nearly all) of your grade? Unfortunately, the system isn’t going anywhere, so we figured we’d share a few insights on how to ace your first set of exams. We’ll discuss:
- What to expect on law school exams
- Battle-tested exam prep strategies
- Exam prep hacks from top law students
Knowing what to expect on a law school exam is essential, and it’s something you can get familiar with and plan for early in the semester. Start by asking an upperclassman who had your professor about their experience (if you can get their outline/notes, even better). Then think about some of these exam-time logistics and incorporate them into your study planning:
Timing. Thanksgiving is usually the time when students really start to sweat finals. After Thanksgiving break, there are only one or two weeks of classes left before the reading period (sometimes called study period) begins. Most students haven’t started their outlines yet and they’re really starting to feel the pressure.
When classes end, reading period begins (if you’re actually spending this time reading, then you’re probably in trouble). Ideally, you’re using this time to finish up your outlines, take practice exams, get feedback, and adjust your outlines. This “break” lasts up to a week for semester schools and can be just a couple days at schools on the quarter system.
Finals can last up to two weeks (one week for quarter-system schools). They tend to be scheduled by the school (as opposed to self-scheduled when you are a 2/3L) and spaced evenly throughout the finals period.
Format. The format of law school exams varies (a little bit). While professors may sprinkle in multiple choice, true-false, or short answer questions, the vast majority of law school exams consist of one or more ridiculous fact patterns. We say ridiculous because of the sheer number of legal issues that are packed into each question. Your job will be to answer specific questions about the set of facts or to just identify all the legal issues contained within it (that’s why they call it an “issue-spotter”). Of course you’ll also have to analyze both sides of each issue you spot, state any assumptions you make, come to a conclusion, and jump through any other hoops your professor puts in front of you. Professors are idiosyncratic, so make sure you take a couple of your professor’s practice exams before you go in for the real thing.
Many law school exams are open-book and open-notes, while others only allow page-limited outlines or are closed-book. Know your exam format and adjust your preparation accordingly.
Length. The typical first semester 1L exam lasts between two and four hours. In this time, you’ll be expected to read the exam materials, plan your attack, and type out as much material as you can in as coherent a format as you can muster.
Tip: Length counts. Professors want to see that you have a strong command of the material taught over the entire course. They also want to see that you have thought through all the scenarios posed by the fact pattern, understand the big picture, and can get into the nitty-gritty details. And just getting to the “right answer” is nowhere near enough—professors want every single step of your analysis written out. This will almost always mean long exams (unless your professor intentionally limits the length of the exam, which is rare).
A surprisingly common student mistake? Missing exam points by skipping over the easy stuff. Often, you’ll start reading an exam question and you’ll immediately pick up on the subtleties and landmines that your professor laid out for you. You’ll want to jump right into the tough stuff and before you know it you’ve breezed right past the basics that every professor wants you to include. But the quickest way to rack up points is to set out the super straightforward legal rules and concepts before diving into the nuances.
So if you’re done an hour early and everyone else is still furiously typing away, or you think you killed it in four pages, think again. Go back and try to find what you’ve missed. This is where your checklist really comes in handy.
Oh, and if you aren’t already, get good at typing—hunt and peck won’t cut it here (or on the bar exam).
Getting ready for exams starts well before the reading period. To take full advantage of the reading period, you’ll want to have briefed your cases, gone to class, and outlined throughout the term. If you’ve been good at keeping up, then here are some things you should focus on come finals time.
Practice exams. Imagine taking the driving portion of your driver’s license exam without ever being behind the wheel of a car. Sound crazy? Well, it’s almost as crazy to take a law school exam without taking a practice exam first. Taking law school exams isn’t natural, and it’s probably unlike anything you’ve done before law school.
Most professors make some of their past exams available for practice. Schedule time to take the practice exams and write out your answers in full. If you have more than one practice exam, then try writing the first exam for completeness (without a time limit), and the rest under exam conditions. After each practice exam, conduct a thorough review to see which areas you’ll need to improve upon.
Feedback. Once you’ve taken some practice exams, don’t just sit back admiring your own awesomeness. Figure out if you actually got anything right. Talk to your professor and your study group if you have one. Talking to your professor is pretty much mandatory—getting your professor’s thoughts on your practice exam answer can give you insight into how your professor thinks about the exam questions and how to approach them. You can then incorporate that intel into your real exam. Talking to your study group can give you different angles or perspectives on an exam problem, which can turn into more diverse arguments on your exam.
Adjusting your outlines. Getting feedback isn’t enough. You actually need to do something with that feedback, and that usually means modifying your outlines accordingly. If you can get through a couple iterations of the “practice exam – feedback – adjust outline” cycle, then you’ll be in great shape for the exam.
Here are a few tricks we picked up from top students around the country. These tips shouldn’t replace any of the essentials we’ve already mentioned, but if you have time, you should look into one or two of them. It could mean the difference between an A and an A+.
Research your professor. Almost all professors do academic research; it’s how they get tenure. If your professor has done a lot of research that’s within the scope of your class (this will happen a lot in constitutional law), then fire up Westlaw or Lexis and find out how he or she thinks. Not only will this give you the issues your professor cares about, but it will also give you the analysis, counter-arguments, and where your professor came out on the issue. If a related question comes up on the exam, then you’ve hit the jackpot. Even if it isn’t on the exam, you will have valuable insight into how your professor likes to structure arguments.
Memorization. Memorization isn’t just for closed-book exams. While most students rely on their outlines rather than their memories for exams, top students understand that memorizing key concepts (usually the rules associated with important cases) can give them a huge time advantage. When their classmates are searching for rules to apply in their outline, these students are writing their answers in a lot less time, allowing them to go deeper into their analysis. This is where flash cards can come in handy. Try creating some with the case name on one side and the corresponding rule on the other.
Go the extra mile. If you really want to impress your professor, then make them do some research when grading your exam. Some students set themselves up well enough during the semester that they have enough time to read cases that are not assigned by the professor. These tend to be cases that are often cited in (or cite to) assigned cases and are highly relevant to the topic being taught. These cases are read with the specific purpose of being used on the exam to bolster or contrast a line of reasoning supported by an assigned case.
If you chose to use this technique, however, be careful to use the extra cases correctly and only when they are applicable. Citing a case for the wrong proposition, whether it was assigned or not, will hurt you.
Got a great exam technique that we missed? We’d love to hear it in the comment section below!
For more on preparing for law school, check out the other articles in our Pre-Law series:
- Law School Basics: What to Expect
- Briefing Cases: Why You Need to Learn Early
- Outlining: Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
- The Importance of 1L Grades
Keep an eye on the blog for more Pre-Law articles.