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“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the [Cheshire] Cat. “I don’t much care where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. � From Lewis Carroll, John Tenniel and Martin Gardner, “The Annotated Alice 88.” (1st ed. 1960). Congratulations! You’re about to start your first year of law school, and you’re all ready to go. You’ve read “One L.” You’ve rented “The Paper Chase,” and you’ve bought every study aid known to law students. What you might not have done yet, though, is internalize why law school is so different from your undergraduate experience. If you don’t internalize that difference, you’re going to be missing something important. If you don’t understand the difference between undergraduate finals and law school finals, you’ll be like Alice in Wonderland: wandering somewhere, but going nowhere in particular. Here’s one way to picture the difference. In undergraduate finals, your professors wanted you to demonstrate mastery of the material, and their questions were geared to make sure that you had absorbed what they taught you. In engineering, math and science, you probably solved problems or balanced equations; in the social sciences and the liberal arts, you probably answered essay questions. In essence, you tried to demonstrate that you had been listening to what your professors said. In law school, we call that level of mastery “necessary but not sufficient.” Naturally, we’ll want you to learn the material that we discuss in class, but you’ll be making the mistake of your life if you expect us to ask you questions on the final exam like “in what ways do the parol evidence rule and the Statute of Frauds complement each other?” We won’t. What we will do is give you a set of facts that you’ve never seen before and ask you vague questions like the infamous “who wins, and why?” — questions designed to see if you understand the law enough to apply it to a situation that doesn’t quite fit the rules as you learned them. We ask those types of questions because clients will bring you problems that don’t announce themselves by subject matter. No client is ever going to walk into your office saying, “I think that I might have accidentally violated the automatic stay of 11 U.S.C. � 362, but do you think that the judge might grant me an exception under 11 U.S.C. � 105?” Clients will bring you a jumble of unsorted facts that will trigger overlapping areas of law (and, what’s worse, they’ll only bring you the facts as they saw them, not as the other party saw them). Thank your lucky stars that we write final exams using only one subject at a time. EXAM-WRITING Why do I harp on this distinction about exams? Because most law students spend their first semester preparing for undergraduate exams and not law school exams. They learn, they outline, they even memorize — but they don’t practice the one skill that’s absolutely necessary for successful exam-writing. They don’t practice applying the law to new facts. And then they shake their heads when grades come around, saying to themselves, “I knew that subject. Why didn’t I do better?” If you want to give first-year exams your best shot, then you need to practice them, over and over. And everything that you do to prepare for exams should be done with that end — exam-writing — in mind. Therefore, you need to pay close attention to the hypotheticals that your professor asks in class. The hypotheticals aren’t there to embarrass you (although they often certainly have that effect) but to give you experience applying rules to situations in which the rules don’t apply well. Listen to the hypotheticals in class, and jot down the differences in facts and results. (For example, when you’re studying consideration in contracts, you should be jotting down things like “Giving up a right — consideration; undying love — not consideration; trading a quarter for two dimes and a nickel — usually not consideration unless you specifically need a quarter and not 25 cents.”) Then, immediately after class, try to make sense of when the rules fit and when a subtle change in fact patterns made the rule fit less well. If you spend 10 to 15 minutes after each class making sure that you understand your notes, then you can summarize a week’s worth of notes (in each of your courses) over the weekend. From those summaries, you can start to prepare outlines. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your outline is the end in itself. It’s not. It’s the tool to help you answer exam questions. As a matter of fact, you should ask yourself every time that you prepare to study, “How can what I’m doing right now help me on exams?” Reading your assigned material will help you; reviewing your notes will help you; trying to explain what you’ve been studying to someone who isn’t law-trained will help you (because it’ll force you to be clear in your explanation); and reading newspapers will help you, too, because every news story is a law school hypothetical in the making. Remember, law school tries to teach you how to counsel clients. Because final exams help you hone the skill of analyzing unfamiliar facts and applying the rules of law to them, exams will help get you where you want to go. Nancy B. Rapoport is dean of the University of Houston Law Center. She writes in the areas of commercial bankruptcy, professional responsibility, and law and popular culture.

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