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I have been teaching first-year law students for over a dozen years and, believe me, I recognize the rhythms. Students enter law school filled with enthusiasm. As the semester progresses, the excitement dulls a bit, but everyone is still feeling good about having made a grown-up decision to earn a professional degree. After the first weeks, people start working harder and more effectively and begin asking more difficult questions in class. The chatter about social events seems to diminish. Then, suddenly, finals are upon us! Students are still learning new material in most courses and, at the same time, are expected to be reviewing and preparing for exams. It’s overwhelming, and it can take an emotional toll. Here are some of the favorite coping tips I share with my beginning students each year. 1. Know why you are doing a course outline. Most people outline their course materials because they think they are supposed to, but they don’t have a clue about why. In my experience, an outline lists legal principles or rules in a form you can memorize (more or less) so that you have instant mental access to the knowledge you need for the “Rule” section of your IRAC exam structure (discussed below). One good tip, suggested by Associate Dean David Oppenheimer at Golden Gate School of Law in San Francisco, is to be sure that you can recite working rules or basic legal concepts to yourself in the mirror. Keep them as simple and straightforward as possible. If you can say them out loud, you can remember them. 2. Don’t do a course outline from scratch. This is a time-consuming and likely inefficient way to review course content. Instead, use the table of contents of your case book or a commercial outline to jump start your course outline. You should be able to figure out where your professor’s approach or emphasis deviates from the standard outline. If you think there is a conflict, follow your professor’s approach. However, in my experience, most perceived conflicts are merely differences in vocabulary. For example, your professor says “mutual assent,” whereas the commercial outline says “offer and acceptance” or your professor says “promissory estoppel” whereas the commercial outline talks about “inducing detrimental reliance,” etc. You should be able to recognize the overlaps when lingo is involved. 3. Don’t be a stranger — study with a buddy. Even if you have always been a loner where schoolwork is concerned, you need to at least try studying with other people for law school exams. If your study group efforts are well organized and don’t degenerate into rambling docudramas, the benefits of a collective effort are enormous. Many law firms are organized into litigation teams for this reason. The old chestnut is that two people working together on a legal problem will have three times as many good ideas as one person working alone. 4. Don’t use study group to muse, schmooze or grouse. That may sound a little harsh, but study groups work best when they are structured. One person should facilitate each meeting, sending an advance e-mail so group members can review the relevant rules beforehand on their own time, opening the session with a quick summary of the law of the day (by outline or description), and presenting several pre-screened practice questions or exercises (with model answers) for members to work under real time conditions and discuss afterward. This level of preparation is a lot of work but, as any instructor can tell you, the person who teaches the class learns the most. You can reward yourselves by socializing afterward. 5. Get ready to shift from passive to active learning! Law school exams are at complete odds with law school classes. All semester long, law school has forced you into a passive mode, making you read and listen and take notes reflecting the wisdom of others. Now, suddenly, you are required to put that knowledge to work by applying it to new fact situations. Rehashing lectures and rebriefing cases is not useful. Review what you need in order to apply the information to new hypotheticals, not for old time’s sake. Gather materials that emphasize active learning skills such as commercial outlines with lots of sample questions, old exams, Internet postings — anything you can find to help you apply the law in the same format that will be used on your final exams. 6. Multiple choice practice questions equal great essay answers. Yes, it’s counterintuitive, but what isn’t in law school? I always encourage students to warm up their study sessions with commercially prepared multiple choice questions, even if there will be no multiple choice questions on the final exam. Think about it. The stem for a multiple choice question is really a little essay fact pattern. The difference is that the person writing the question focuses the issue(s) you are to analyze, and requires complete accountability in your response. No waffling, as in an essay answer — in selecting your answer, you are expected to move through the general rule into an exception, defense, or sub-rule. In a relatively short period of time, you are exposed to lots of different fact patterns and given the opportunity for lots of issue and rule review. Because these questions focus on one or two immediately apparent issues, you won’t waste your time on a one-hour practice essay which turns out to depend on an issue you didn’t even cover in class! 7. Lose the term-paper approach. When you took exams or wrote papers or reports prior to law school, you searched for a small aspect or delicate nuance of a large subject and turned it into the central topic of a personal masterwork that exhausted the requisite time or number of pages. (I particularly remember one earthshaking paper I wrote in graduate school on the use of dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.) Law school exams are different. Professors place no value on creativity or on your ability to elevate an obscure concept to center stage. Instead, they write exams that require you to survey the applicable legal principles and to apply them to new fact patterns. In other words, you really have to know the law and be prepared to apply it. Suppose we had a fact pattern where a defendant was found in the backyard of a residential property and arrested for trespass. The issue was whether the trespass charges were valid. Note that both examples use a conventional approach, but the analysis in the first example veers off on an irrelevant tack. BAD LEGAL WRITING: The charges against the defendant for misdemeanor trespass are improper. Misdemeanor trespass prohibits a person from entering and occupying the property of another without the consent of the property holder. The misdemeanor trespass statute is the outgrowth of legislative concern about unwelcome squatters who were turning up in large numbers on private property in the first part of the twentieth century. Although California was not unsympathetic to their plight, the Legislature feared that they dispossessed the true owners, who were entitled to be free of such encumbrances. GOOD LEGAL WRITING: The criminal charges against the defendant for misdemeanor trespass will not stick. Misdemeanor trespass prohibits a person from entering and occupying the property of another without the consent of the property holder. The defendant in the fact pattern leapt over a fence into the owner’s backyard; the gate was locked. The owner denied having allowed him to do so, so the first element of unconsented entry is satisfied. However, the defendant remained for only five minutes, which is insufficient to satisfy the “occupancy” prong, since courts have required a continuous, nontransient stay for conviction under the misdemeanor trespasss statute in this jurisdiction. 8. IRAC your exam answers, of course, but think about it when you do it. Everyone starts their essay answers with the best intentions. They promise themselves to structure the answer in manageable sections by [I] identifying the key issues (usually about four or five); [R] stating the rule for each; [A] applying the rule to the facts [rules of thumb include trying to use every fact; providing interpretations and counter-interpretations; including defenses]; and [C] drawing a logical conclusion to wrap up each part. This approach sounds sensible, so why does everyone get lost when they try to do it? I have my theories. Failure to outline the answer is one. Also, failure to read the facts accurately and failure to recognize key legal issues seems to come into play. Another related problem is failure to consider the ramifications of one issue on subsequent issues. Another common flaw is misstating the rule of law. Or just dumping in a rule statement that looks vaguely applicable, without tailoring it to the fact pattern. Analyses suffer when they are too one-sided or conclusory. Students also lose points when they fail to include defenses or draw illogical conclusions that foreclose their ability to proceed to the next issue — if you paint yourself into this particular corner, open your next section by stating something like, “Assuming arguendo that a contract was not formed at this stage, plaintiff could still make a case for promissory estoppel.” You can train yourself out of these errors by doing practice exams until they come out your ears. It’s just like aerobics: You have to work up your exam-writing skills over a period of time in order to really hit the beat. 9. Divide and conquer. Although your stream-of-consciousness musings are no doubt fascinating on open mike night at the local coffee house, the expectations of a law school professor are more pedestrian. For an essay answer, I want my students to provide an in-your-face organizational structure. This requires using the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a one-hour essay question slot to outline. I get tired as I read bluebook after bluebook; I want clear signposts in the form of clear sections, subsections, headings and underlining to communicate the structure of the answer. That lets me know the student has thought through her answer and has taken time to outline beforehand. Headings are the most efficient way to present an answer and identify the issues. You can launch right into the rule in the test that follows and don’t even need to bother with a topic sentence or thesis statement. For Torts and Crimes, I expect a heading to identify each possible claim or charge. Each analysis is usually freestanding. For example, discuss both battery and negligence, even if they involve contradictory legal theories. Nevertheless, the claims should be discussed in a logical order. For Contracts, Civil Procedure, and Property, I expect my students to divide the sequence of events in the fact pattern into four or maybe even five significant transactions or interactions and to identify a hot issue (or maybe two) for each. The analyses in these subjects tends to be linked: the analysis in any given section often depends on the conclusion reached in the prior section. For example, in a one-hour essay question, the following structures would be useful: TORTS ANSWER OUTLINE (freestanding analyses): Patty wishes to sue her neighbor Dan for injuries sustained when she was attacked by his killer bees. I. Patty’s Strict Liability Claim Against Dan II. Patty’s Nuisance Claim Against Dan III. Patty’s Intentional Tort Claims Against Dan IV. Patty’s Negligence Claim Against Dan CONTRACTS ANSWER OUTLINE (linked analysis): Sally wishes to enforce Ken’s offer to give her his Land Rover; Ken believes he is not bound to do so. I. Ken’s First Offer of the Land Rover to Sally — gratuitous offer/express rejection II. Ken’s Second Offer of the Land Rover to Sally — past consideration not binding III. Sally’s Counteroffer of Voice Lessons to Ken in return for the car — terms indefinite/grumbling acceptance IV. Sally’s Remedy of Promissory Estoppel if no Contract Formed — reasonable and foreseeable reliance. 10. Law school exams are part substantive analysis, part task. Most law school exams ask you to write a one-hour essay answer. In that case, divide your answer into manageable and logical sections, use headings, use the rule statement to organize or structure your analysis, proceeding element-by-element, and include arguments and interpretations that you would anticipate from both sides. Finally, I have read so many exam bluebooks where a student walked away from points because he forgot to include defenses in his analysis! Remember, defenses have elements just like claims. Every so often, your professor decides to use her imagination and vary the format. She may assign several short answer questions instead of full-hour questions. She may use multiple choice. Or she may ask you to draft your answer in the form of a memo, legal correspondence, or a pleading. Or, she may ask you to compose an answer based on a packet of materials rather than the usual fact pattern. Be sure to follow instructions to the letter. 11. Watch the clock. If you can’t finish the answer when you write practice exams, you are likely writing too much or being overly repetitive. If you sit around twiddling your pen while others are plugging away, you are either missing issues or providing too little analysis on the issues you do identify. Practice is the key. 12. Have fun. As an instructor, I can attest to the fact that it can be really tedious to read student bluebooks. It warms my heart when a student follows a thorough and conventional IRAC analysis with comments on social policy or politics or historical context. A policy analysis will not substitute for austere logic in a good essay answer, but it is a wonderful end note. The other night I was teaching a torts problem and we were discussing the requirement that the plaintiff’s presence in the “zone of danger” allowed him to recover emotional distress. After presenting the rule and applying it to the facts, one of my students observed that in this high-tech age of instant recording and communications, waiving the zone of danger rule would impermissibly broaden the class of potential plaintiffs claiming emotional distress. It was an interesting policy discussion, and he earned the right to present it because he did a solid conventional analysis first. Good luck on your exams! Lois Schwartz is an adjunct professor at Hastings College of the Law, Santa Clara University, and Golden Gate. She recently completed a special assignment in the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office and occasionally fills in as a research attorney for the Contra Costa County Superior Court.

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