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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Beyond "Beyond IRAC": Even More Exam Taking Tips

In December 2008, I posted something called "Beyond IRAC: Law School Exam Taking Tips."  Over at Legal Profession Blog, we have a steady, if smaller than PrawfsBlawg, readership, but as happens when Above the Law picks up and links to us, I'm pretty sure we set a one-day record for discrete page hits on that one.  I think it's time for a reprise, but somewhat updated.  So here we go:

It's that time of year when law school professors (including me) procrastinate and whine about grading, even though it's one of the few burdens that fall upon us in our privileged lives.  I thought I would procrastinate in a useful way as I make my way through another round of bluebooks.  Here are some tips that go beyond the old IRAC/TREAC saws (even though thar's truth in them thar saws!):

1.  When the professor tells you how much each question is worth, take it seriously!  In particular, there is a tendency to devote disproportionately too much time to small questions at the beginning, sort of like going out too fast in the first mile of a 10K race.  For example, I always assign 180 points to my three hour exams, so that the points roughly equal the amount of time to be devoted.  If the first contracts law question has only 10 points assigned, it's unlikely the professor has in mind that you write the history of consideration law since the days of assumpsit - take a minute to figure out what the most obvious point of the question is, and write for 10, not 30, minutes on it.

2.  When the professor asks you to consider the claims plaintiff may make against a list of potential defendants, put yourself in the shoes of the the plaintiff, and again, start with the most obvious and work your way to the more subtle.  The reason is that you pick up more issues this way.  What I see a lot is students picking up on the most obvious issue that springs from the facts, say, a piercing the corporate veil issue to get to the shareholders, jump right to it and forget to discuss what claims the plaintiff has against the corporation itself, thus missing a chunk of possible points.  Again, put yourself in the position of the plaintiff.  Who do I sue first most obviously?  Where are the issues in that?  Then who else do I go after? [NEW:  And when the professor asks you to consider the claims plaintiff may make against a list of potential defendants, DON'T spend three-quarters of the answer discussing claims against defendants the professor DIDN'T list, or cross-claims that the defendants have against each other.  Fine, if you answer the question and then have time to burn, go right ahead.  But if the questions says something like "Advise X on the claims against A, B, and C," start with X's claims against A, B, and C.  Also, if this class is, say, regulation of mutual funds, and we never talked about professional responsibility or family law issues that you've somehow managed to spot in the fact pattern, it's probably a good bet that they don't show up in your professor's answer key.  Once again, if you've got time to burn...]

3.  Don't try to be funny.  Trust me.  Even though my class is one-part stand-up comedy to two parts substance, I get no comic relief from witticisms (even your repeating my own) in the exam.  It doesn't hurt you; it just wastes your valuable time.

4.  Organize, organize, organize.  You wouldn't believe the advantage that comes from having the issues separated by paragraph headings or outline notation.  Chances are that the professor has a sample answer or outline split up into issues.  Even you don't write your answer in the same order, having the issues split out lets us see clearly what you got and what you didn't.  (This, of course, assumes you have something relevant to say.  They say in practice: when you have the law, argue the law; when you have the facts, let them speak, and when you have neither, pound on the table.  The exam analog would be:  (1) when you know the material, show it; (2) if you have style, use it; and (3) if you have neither, puke all over the bluebook.)  Where I notice this particularly is in big "issue-spotter" questions with complex facts in the second half of the exam, when students are already tired.  This is where you really want to suck it up and resist your impulse to blow chunks all over the page.  Instead, take a deep breath.  Slow down for a couple minutes and write an outline of the answer in the margin before digging in.  [New:  I teach business association courses.  I regularly use schematics in class to show the relationship of partners to partnerships, members to LLCs, shareholders to corporations, etc.  Like many professors, I use a fairly complex fact pattern of relationships to see if students understand the concepts well enough to sort out who is what, and what duties and obligations they all have to each other.  I regularly see students make a complete pig's breakfast out of the structure, mixing up general partners, LLC managers, shareholders, and God knows what else.  Along with the outline, DRAW A PICTURE!  After 31 years of this, I still have to, and I have to believe you do too.]

5.  For God's sake, if you have terrible handwriting, invest in a Mavis Beacon typing course.  The reality is that grading is very much art surrounded by a patina of science.  By and large, a couple points on the exam here and there won't make a big difference.  I feel very, very confident that my exams create a representative continuum.  But there are arbitrary calls at the margins, particularly when you have to turn numerical scores into letter grades.  Why let that go against you because the professor got frustrated trying to make sense of a test that looks like Linear A or Hammurabi's Code in the original cuneiform?  (To be clear, I have no prejudice against handwritten exams; I have given just as many As on handwritten as typed and I've seen typed exams that look like the old "12 monkeys will eventually type the Encyclopaedia Brittanica" story.  But it's far more common to have unintelligible handwriting than unintelligible typing.) [New:  when you combine this with the kind of organizational issues discussed in point 4, you end up with something like the James Joyce's approach to the last 25,000 words of Ulysses, only illegible as well, and my heart isn't going like mad and no I said no I will No.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on May 13, 2010 at 08:58 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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