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First, there was the LSAT, then the law school application process. Once you made it to law school, you suffered through the arcane — at times indecipherable — language of judicial opinions and endured the crucible of your professors’ relentless Socratic questioning. But soon you’ll have made it through the first semester, only to arrive at the final rite of passage — first-year exams. The prospect is daunting. In many of your courses, final exams will present your first opportunity to write and receive feedback from your professor and will count for 100 percent of your final grade. But do not despair. Having worked your way through the semester, you are now more comfortable with the analytical process that so challenged you during those first weeks of classes. You are also in a better place to see “the big picture” in your courses, to understand how all the rules and cases fit together to comprise a body of law. These are the things your first-year exams will test. In other words, your exam performance depends not on good luck, but on hard work — the same hard work you have been doing all year long. Of course, test-taking is itself a type of learned skill. Remember how you answered all those practice LSAT questions in preparation for the real thing? Test-taking technique is important in law school as well, which is why your professor probably has urged you to test yourself on old exams or review questions. Law school exams tend to follow a standard pattern. Occasionally you will find one that contains multiple-choice, short-answer or other “objective” components; however, the traditional law school exam consists of a series of essay questions in which you are presented with a complex fact pattern and asked to analyze the legal issues raised by the hypothetical. Understanding how to tackle that kind of question and how to frame your response is crucial. While each exam, and each professor, is slightly different, there are some universal tricks of the trade that every law student should know. What follows are 10 suggestions designed to help you make the most of your test-taking time. 1. Skip the statement of facts. Formalities used in legal writing class are not required on the exam, nor do you have time to comply with them. You must use facts in performing legal analysis (see tip No. 6 below), but there is no need to provide a generic summary of the hypothetical at the outset of your answer. Your professor knows what happened — she or he drafted the question. Similarly, you do not need to use proper citations when citing cases from the textbook or create point headings, though it will help your organization if you divide your answer according to the various issues raised. 2. Use sensible abbreviations to save space. Initials for parties’ names, one-word case names, shorthand that your professor may have used on the board (e.g., “Neg.” for “negligence” or “S.L.” for strict liability), or any comprehensible abbreviation you have created yourself are all expected and acceptable. If there is any question as to clarity, introduce the abbreviation parenthetically following the full written version of the word or phrase the first time you use it. For instance: “The issue is whether the parol evidence rule (P.E.R.) prevents the plaintiff from introducing oral statements made during negotiations.” Then you may use P.E.R. throughout the rest of your answer. This is what lawyers do in practice when drafting documents. 3. Answer the question asked. Fact patterns occasionally will be followed by specific questions or general instructions on how to respond. For instance, the professor may tell you to advise a client on her legal rights, or predict how a court will rule on a given issue, or in some cases make a recommendation about how a court should dispose of a case. Do not ignore these instructions. Use them to frame your answer. In other words, keep the big picture in mind. You want to show that you know all the rules and cases, but you also want to demonstrate your appreciation for how those rules and cases come together to form a legal strategy for a client or compel a particular resolution of a case. Show the professor that your knowledge of law is not merely academic, but that you understand that legal argument is a tool for achieving results in particular contexts. 4. Answer only the question asked. Do not spend time talking about rules and issues that are not fairly implicated by the facts. Part of what your professor is testing is your ability to recognize the issues that are relevant and address yourself to what is sometimes called the call of the question. In most cases, you will get no extra credit for correct statements of law that do not apply, and in all cases you will take precious time away from your analysis of the legitimate issues, the ones your professor is testing. Similarly, do not resist the hypothetical. That is, do not spend time questioning the facts presented in the fact pattern. If a fact pattern states that the witness identified the defendant as the perpetrator, do not debate whether the witness is sure. Assume the truth of the facts, no matter how absurd, and get on to the discussion of the legal issues. 5. Analyze all issues thoroughly. This is perhaps the most important tip of all. The difficulty for new law students is appreciating fully what it means to address all issues. It is often the case with legal problems that sub-issues will flow from the resolution of a threshold issue. You never should choose a particular resolution of a threshold question and fail to consider the issues that would flow from a contrary resolution. Rather, you must argue in the alternative. For instance, if on a contracts exam you conclude that the plaintiff will prevail in establishing breach of contract, you still must analyze whether he can succeed in bringing a promissory estoppel claim in the event that the court rules against him as to the existence of a contract. Similarly, there are sometimes several different rules or judicial approaches that can be applied in resolving a legal issue. Unless you are told that a certain rule applies, such as the restatement rule or the rule applied in a particular case or jurisdiction, you are expected to take account of all possible rules that a court might adopt, explaining the likely resolution of the case under each one. Finally, be sure to include in your analysis all valid arguments that a lawyer could make even if you conclude they will not be successful or that other arguments will be more persuasive. 6. Do not rely on legal rules to the exclusion of facts. It is not enough to be able to recite the legal rule, you must know how to apply that rule to the fact pattern. This often calls for a bit of advocacy on your part. In your answer, try to use the facts as you would expect the parties’ lawyers to use them in presenting their case to a court. That is, marshal the facts in support of the various possible conclusions that can be drawn from the rule, switching hats between plaintiff’s counsel and defendant’s as necessary to cover all bases. 7. Do not rely on facts to the exclusion of legal rules. Facts without rules are as inadequate as rules without facts. It is your job to explain why the facts you identify are legally significant. That means stating why the facts you choose to talk about are relevant to the result you reach. A good way to be sure you are doing this on your exam is to think about using the language of the rule to explain why the facts will require a particular result. In other words, when you apply the law, do not simply say, “The driver will be liable for negligence because she was driving 75 mph in a rainstorm.” Instead say, “The driver will be liable because a reasonable person exercising due care would not take the risk of driving at 75 mph in a rainstorm.” This second sentence argues the facts using the appropriate legal standard for negligence rather than just reciting objectively what occurred under the fact pattern. 8. Write like a lawyer. Follow “IRAC” (issue, rule, analysis, conclusion) or whatever comparable organizational technique you learned in your legal writing class. Use simple, readable English (not legalese), and be concise. Finally, write and organize your writing in a legible manner that will assist the professor in identifying what you know. It is often a good idea to skip lines or pages if you are writing your answer in a bluebook. It not only puts your professor in a better mood during grading, but it also leaves you space to add things that you might think of later in the exam. 9. Budget your time. Take a few moments at the outset of the exam to plan your answer and budget your time. If your professor is kind enough to suggest time allocations for each question, stick to them. The reality is that most legal issues are so complex you could write about each one forever. Do your best, then move on. You probably will achieve a better overall grade with three less-than-perfect answers than with two complete and one blank. 10. Relax and focus on what you know. One of the nice things about law school exams is that there are rarely any trick questions. The doctrine itself is challenging enough. Everything you see on your exams should reflect the types of issues you were exposed to in class or in your reading assignments, though you may not realize it when you first read the question. In fact, upon first reading the question, most likely you will feel your head spinning and have no idea how to even begin your answer. When this happens, relax. Breathe. Think about how much more you know now than you did before you came to law school. The type of thorough analysis you need to do on the exam is no different from the analysis you were expected to provide when called on in class. As you probably know by now, there are no right answers to legal questions, only good process. So there is no need to panic. If you have consistently prepared for class, have drafted a good working outline of the material, have studied and answered plenty of practice questions, there is no reason why you will not do well. Rachel Arnow-Richman is an associate professor at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth. She earned her LL.M. in legal education from Temple University School of Law and her J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School.

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