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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Law Student Forum: Exam Questions

As a recent article in the National Jurist noted, law professors are getting into this whole blogging thing.  And as law profs start putting their thoughts and ideas out there on the Internet, savvy students are learning that blawgs are a good source of additional information about the law.  And that's what you are, student Prawfsblawg reader -- savvy.  Smart.  And sophisticated, too.

As a service to our student readers, I'm creating a thread for any exam-related questions you might have about those upcoming monstrosities.  Let us know if you have specific questions about technique or general questions about overall approach.  Of course, some secrets have to stay in the old professorial vault, but we'll give you the inside scoop when we can.  Because we know that you're savvy, smart, and sophisticated, and we want you to stay that way.

If you're a prof, please weigh in as comments are posted.  I hope we can get a real dialogue going here.

Posted by Matt Bodie on November 17, 2005 at 09:12 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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» Law School Exam Tips from madisonian.net
For the occasional law student who wanders by this blog, heres a link to a recent conversation over at Prawfsblawg that features some things that law students should do, and some things that they should not do, when writing exam answers. ... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 22, 2005 9:35:45 PM


Hmmm ... where to start? OK, so I've read Getting To Maybe, so I think I understand the general approach to issue-spotters. But my 3L TA seems to take this approach to the extreme. He argues that, for issue spotters, you don't even really have to come up with a conclusion for the issues (at least, for the ones that the professor intentionally makes ambiguous) -- that it's better just to argue both sides and leave it at that. Now, I understand that the reasoning is more important than the conclusion in an issue spotter, but is this taking it a little too far? Shouldn't there be at least some attempt -- after arguing both sides -- to hang your hat on one side or the other?

Also, the same TA argues that organization of your answer is not important. He says to spend a quick minute thinking out the broad outlines of eveyrthing that you need to talk about, and then just type until the bell rings. His idea seems to be that professors really do just run down the test with a checklist, and that it's better to get more of the items on the checklist at the expense of a sligtly-better structured essay. Now obviously, I'm not talking about abolishing the paragraph here. But is it generally true that structure needs only be minimal, and students should sacrifice time spent on it in order to fill up the prof's issue checklist?

Posted by: Jeff V. | Nov 17, 2005 10:05:54 AM

Here's my opinion, with the disclaimer that it's only my opinion. As to the conclusion question, I agree that it's good to come to some sort of conclusion. But if it's unclear, you should not be afraid to say it's unclear, as long as you spell out exactly why (i.e., what the answer hinges on). If you think a court would come out one way, though, I think you should say so along with an explanation. As a quick example: "A court might find consideration for the contract based on X. However, a court might find no consideration based on Y. On balance, I think a court would find consideration because X is more logical/supported by stronger policy/more in line with settled precedent/etc. than Y."

I do think organization is important. You should proceed logically from issue to issue. While some profs may just count whether you've hit the issue or not, I factor organization and logical progression into the grade. Yes, be sure to hit all the issues. But if you can, spend some time making an outline and progressing logically through it. In many cases, students spend too much time hitting every potential minor issue and not enough time working through the tough, major ones.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Nov 17, 2005 10:17:12 AM

Thanks for this post - perfect timing for us anxious 1Ls.

Two questions:

1) How much does quality of writing factor when you're grading an exam (beyond questions of organization)? How much time should I take in making sure the exam reads well as opposed to cramming in everything I see?

2) What's the most typical - and avoidable - mistake you see in otherwise excellent exams?

Posted by: JH | Nov 17, 2005 10:53:37 AM

n.b. Heidi Bond's blog has a really good category of advice to law students, some of which appears to include exam advice.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Nov 17, 2005 11:33:30 AM

(1) For me, good writing is a factor. I don't assign much weight to style, spelling, etc., but I like to see thoughtful responses that (as I said above) follow a logical progression in response to the question. If you say to yourself, "I'm just going to write as fast as I can and not care about style," then you may write an essay that is difficult for the professor to understand. Most professors will take some time to try to figure out what you wrote, but he or she may have 50-80-120 exams to grade. It's your responsibility to be clear.

(2) That's a tough one. I think the worst mistake is making a definitive decision early in the decision tree and then missing a whole host of issues because of that decision. For example, in Contracts the initial decision may be, "Is there consideration for a contract?" This question may be pitched somewhat ambiguously. If there is consideration, then you may have to discuss other formation issues like the Statute of Frauds. If there's not consideration, you have to discuss equitable alternatives like promissory estoppel or restitution. So if you decide "There's definitely consideration here" and don't talk about promissory estoppel, you may miss a lot of points. Of course, if the consideration issue is a non-issue because it's so clear (one way or another) then you need not waste time on the alternative. But sometimes students jump to conclusions too hastily without considering alternatives and the subsequent issues that spring from them.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Nov 17, 2005 11:36:56 AM

I think the "3L TA" is wrong and probably just guessing based on his grade and his technique that they are related. I tell my students to spend 1/2 the allotted time per question outlining/thinking, then the remainder writing/typing. I have 116 BA exams to read. If the student is stream-of-consciousnessing me, I'll have to read the answer a couple of times to figure it out. Help me out. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but I hate going on that roller coaster of an answer. I also look for a conclusion. The conclusion may not be conclusive as to the grade, but I'm looking for it.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Nov 17, 2005 11:44:56 AM

A very helpful forum for law students, Matt. Thanks for starting it.

I too emphasize organization in talking with my class about exams. I don't know about spending half of your time on organization and outlining, but I do recommend they spend real time thinking through their answers before they start writing. This is true for a variety of reasons. First, it helps them spot all the issues. Second, it gives them time to think through all the little niggling points they might want to hit. Third, and I think this is important -- it -constrains- them. As Christine noted, folks who start writing immediately end up wasting the best use of their time. They more or less think through an issue as they are writing, and can spend pages at a time discussing the facts in a meandering way, thinking up the most obscure and unlikely arguments, or focusing completely on major issues and missing minor ones. If a student has spent time outlining and knows he or she has five issues to cover and (after outlining) only 40 minutes of writing time, that student will know how much time to spend on each issue, and is far more likely to provide an analysis that sticks close to the relevant legal and factual issues in each case.

More broadly, I tell students that one way to think about exams is that your legal research and writing course actually matters to everything else you do in law school (not to mention practice), and that a great exam answer looks like, or approximates given time constraints, a strong legal memo -- organized, using headings and subheadings where appropriate, concise, and offering real analysis and at least provisional conclusions as opposed to just recounting the potential arguments on each side. (How many of you have read countless exams that say, "The plaintiff will argue X....The defendant will argue Y....The plaintiff should win on this point," with no actual reasons offered as to -why- X is a stronger argument?) Students, I think, sometimes think this is an unreasonable expectation given the time constraints, and of course I understand this. But the fact is, the more good legal writing and analysis is practiced, the more reflexive that approach becomes, the less it matters that you're writing in an exam situation rather than in the leisure of your home or office. A well-organized exam makes the most of every issue and presents the discussion in a way that professors, harried from grading countless exams, can clearly follow and appreciate.

I don't grade explicitly on writing, although I do have bonus points available for a number of factors including writing. But the best-written, best organized exams also usually (but not always) are the strongest substantive exams. Again, writing skills are traits that should be internalized. Sure, it's an exam, and you're rushed. But doesn't it bother you to write sloppily, or with awful spelling or grammar, or sentence fragments? Doesn't it give you, as the writer, a nails-on-chalkboard feeling? Shouldn't it?

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 17, 2005 12:00:53 PM

The biggest mistake I see is failure to talk about the facts. Most law professors are looking for "legal analysis", which boils down to talking about the law in the context of the facts given. The facts in the issue spotter are cues for students to talk about particular legal issues. Spot the issue, then talk about the law raised by that issue and how it relates to the facts given. Don't just come to the conclusion. Say the question presents a landlord who places the following advertisement in a local paper: "Room for let; married white couple preferred." An answer "the advertisement violates the Fair Housing Act because 'married white couple' is discriminatory" misses a lot of points. To get all the points, answer the "why" question -- why does it violate the FHA? It violates the FHA because the FHA prohibits discriminatory advertising; the ad says "white", which indicates a racial preference prohibited by the FHA; the ad says "no kids," which violates the FHA prohibition on preference based on family circumstances; "married couple" does _not_ violate the FHA, because family circumstances under the FHA is defined to mean the presence or absence of kids. If you are careful to talk about all of the facts that you have identified as important, then you will also probably hit all of the issues.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Nov 17, 2005 12:23:25 PM

I'm also in the half-outline, half-write camp. Organization is the key. Basic first principles are the key. And then - and this advice doesn't mean much - showing you're smart, thoughtful, and concise when you briefly address each issue seems like good extra credit.

Oh, I was never a big bring-policy-into-the-issue-spotters guy, but I wouldn't penalize it, and that's something that must vary lots by professor.

Posted by: David Zaring | Nov 17, 2005 1:15:06 PM

I'm a 2L and certainly not in a position to offer any kind of inside advice but I just wanted to mention that this - "The facts in the issue spotter are cues for students to talk about particular legal issues." - was very helpful to keep in mind. I think some/many students don't figure this out, amazing as that might seem.

Posted by: 2l | Nov 17, 2005 1:49:59 PM

Slightly more esoteric question-- how much should a student worry about compromising their anonymity? That is, suppose the exam is to be graded blind, but the student wants to cite to material that they've written or that will make it painfully obvious who they are? (This is more likely to be an issue on take-home exams, which are the norm here.) Is this silly to worry about, since professors are overworked and unlikely to pay that carefuly attention?

Posted by: 2L | Nov 17, 2005 2:05:02 PM

If you go out of your way to mention something, or you refer to an inside joke with a nod and a wink, then that's tacky and perhaps a violation of the honor code. But if you just use arguments you've used before, that's perfectly legit.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Nov 17, 2005 2:40:48 PM

I don't know about the rest of youse, but I'm going to ask that _my_ students write their answers out in iambic pentameter.

Posted by: Kaimi | Nov 17, 2005 5:33:22 PM

How does the interplay between the BJR and a director's duty of care work out? It seems like even discussing it in terms of a duty of care is highly misleading since the BJR appears to completely encompass it.

Posted by: Jamal | Nov 17, 2005 7:03:43 PM

I'd rather not get into substance, since your Business Organizations course might have different coverage or content than mine. But there is still a duty of care left even after the business judgment rule. Don't forget cases like Francis v. United Jersey Bank, Caremark, and Van Gorkom.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Nov 17, 2005 11:41:55 PM

Ah, Van Gorkhom.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Nov 17, 2005 11:59:56 PM

I second Paul Horwitz's strong memo/strong exam comparison. And my experience is the same as that of Ben Barros: the weak exams show far too little engagement with the details, the nuances of the facts. (Practicing lawyers sometimes say the same thing about weak memos written by new associates. I suppose that underscores Paul's comparison.)

Posted by: Joe Miller | Nov 18, 2005 12:52:00 AM

IANALP, but regarding quality of writing, here are my two cents.

I think that writing an answer that is easy to read will always get you more points than writing an answer that is not easy to read. Professors might not understand what you're saying if you speak in a convoluted way. Or they might tune out portions of what you say, and miss some of your arguments altogether. Writing well always helps, because if you write reasonably well, you'll communicate more of your argument to your audience.

The trick for many law students is to understand that "writing well" does not mean "writing so that you think you sound smart." Use short sentences with simple sentence structure and words that you use in regular conversation.

Posted by: Heidi | Nov 18, 2005 4:27:49 PM

For what they're worth, my own "exam tips" (particularly for first years): (1) Read the question carefully. (Make sure you are answering the question that was asked, not the one that you assumed, after reading the first line, was being asked); (2) "Show your work." This is a version of the "get to why" point made above. That is, it is not effective to write: "A conspiracy is _____. Joe Factman is a conspirator." (3) Manage your time. I usually have three questions, or sections, and it usually appears that students' answers to the third question are hurried.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 20, 2005 8:42:07 AM

I'm a one-L. Why is it that we read how judges write about cases for the whole semester and then at the end we are supposed to write like a lawyer, having never seen how a lawyer writes?

And what policy is served by the current exam system? What exactly are the benefits for society and the legal profession?

Posted by: a-train | Nov 25, 2005 7:30:29 PM

well, i guess it's been a couple years since anybody's written here. however, in case SOMEbody's checking to see whether anyone out there is reading this thread, know that one student found this discussion quite helpful. thanks.

Posted by: Jessie | Nov 29, 2007 3:37:58 AM

concurring with Jessie, above me. As I head into the homestretch of my first set of finals as a 1L, I regret not having found this discussion sooner. Thanks for all of the insight

Posted by: Caitlin | Dec 12, 2007 9:29:59 PM

Case history is in but either the case exactly fits and it is not of interest because it is not new or it does not fit and the judge informs so; in either instance, case history is useless. The book http://www.fight-for-freedom.net written during detention is composed of over 100 legal filings that only refer to law as basis for legal practice.
No case is exactly the same and thus you have to be careful with using case history. Be original, learn law and apply that; it is your only relible reference guide; the book, is highly educational from the perspective of reference to law only - there is on case history included - but it did not make the difference; keep in mind, courts only rule by jurisdiction.
This book is unique in it's composition and consider the story within, even through the law used is not exactly the law used in your country.

Posted by: Marlies Van Hoef | Aug 2, 2008 5:14:16 PM

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