Monthly Archives: April 2014

Getting Past Panic in Law School Exams

We’ve all had that feeling—that moment when you are sitting in the classroom, your professor hands out the exam, and every rational thought flees your brain. You are paralyzed. Sweat begins to bead your forehead. And then the voice in your head screams out: “I can’t remember anything I studied! I’m about to fail my exam!” The challenge is how to move past that feeling of panic and successfully complete the exam.

While you can’t vanquish those feelings of panic with a magic wand, there are things that you can do to conquer panic during exams. As with so much else in law school, one of the most important keys is what you’ve done prior to the exam—your preparation. We’ve talked before about how taking the right approach to outlining can help you to predict what may be tested on the exam. One of the reasons why law students panic at the beginning of an exam is because they are afraid of the unknown. Law students view exam creation as a mysterious and unpredictable process. In reality, as I’ve explained before, professors tend to test the nuances in the law—areas where there are competing approaches, shifting outcomes based upon facts or policy approaches, and fact patterns that require students to recognize how a series of legal issues relate to each other. Identifying those nuances in advance through outlining will make the exam more predictable and reduce your feelings of anxiety.

I have also explained previously about how to create a one-page checklist of legal issues that may be tested on an exam. This checklist is a very specific way of connecting your preparation prior to the exam to what is going on during the exam. If you create a checklist of potential legal issues, you have a mental prompt you can rely upon when that feeling of panic rears its head at the beginning of the exam. How can you do this? If you immediately panic when you look at the exam questions, try this technique: Put your exam aside for a minute and take out your scrap paper. Quickly replicate a shorthand version of your checklist on the scrap paper. Once you have put that checklist on paper, you have a tool that you can use to answer the exam questions. You can literally take each issue on the checklist and evaluate whether that issue is raised by the fact pattern in the essay question. If it is, you can jot down quick notes about what facts you wish to talk about with respect to that issue. By the time that you get through the checklist, you have created a quick outline, chart, or list about how you will tackle the essay question, and the writing should go smoothly and quickly. The feeling of panic will go away as your preparation kicks in!

 

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Outlines, Stress and Mental Health, Study Tips

Essay Exams Are About the Journey, Not Just the Destination (Part 2): Don’t Forget Counterarguments!

In my last post, I introduced the idea that essay exams are about the journey, not just the destination. In doing so, I explained that most of the points in an essay exam are earned by explaining how you got to the answer, not by giving the answer itself—in other words, by “showing your work.” Today, I want to continue that theme by talking about counterarguments.

One of the key ways to maximize the number of points you earn for discussion of a complex legal issue is by exploring counterarguments. A counterargument is simply an alternative argument that you have chosen not to make because you have concluded that your path to your answer is the correct one. In practice, a lawyer deals with counterarguments on a regular basis. He or she must anticipate the opposing party’s possible arguments and address in his or her own pleadings and briefs why those arguments are invalid. By exploring counterarguments in your essay, you demonstrate to your professor that you understand the complexity of the legal issues and are thinking like a lawyer.

Not every issue requires a counterargument. Sometimes the analysis is pretty cut-and-dried, the answer predictable. But more often than not, your professor has chosen to set up legal issues with enough complexity that a counterargument is warranted. Look for legal issues in which multiple public policies are at work—those public policies may create different paths for your analysis. Sometimes there may be competing approaches to a legal issue, such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law vs. statutory approaches. Or maybe courts apply a balancing test to resolve this legal issue, and you need to compare the essay fact pattern to the facts in a range of cases you read for the course. If you’ve done a good job of outlining course materials, as I talked about here and here, you can predict exactly when a counterargument may be warranted.

Finally, once you’ve analyzed the counterargument, make sure you don’t forget to explain to the reader why your approach is superior to the counterargument—this is the final step to setting up your conclusion of that issue.

Counterarguments are a great way to maximize your success in an essay exam—take time to explore them and don’t just rush to your destination!

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Essay Exams Are About the Journey, Not Just the Destination (Part 1): Show Your Work!

Image courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Like most law students, you are probably beginning final exams this week, if you aren’t already in the midst of them. In support of your hard work, this week’s posts will focus on tips to improve your performance on essay exams. It’s important to remember that essay exams are about the journey, not just the destination. The right “answer” is only one small part of your essay-writing task.

Remember when you were in math class as a child, and the teacher counted off if you didn’t “show your work”? You would get the right answer, but because you did the calculations in your head rather than on paper, you didn’t get full credit for the problem. Your teacher wanted to make sure that you actually knew how to apply the appropriate rules and formulas–that your correct answer wasn’t just a lucky guess. The same rules apply to law school essay exams—in order to be successful, you must show your work!

So what do I mean by “show your work” in your essay? As you know from previous law school exams, law professors create essay questions that each raise a number of legal issues. The question will set out a number of facts that relate to each legal issue. Your job is to identify the issues and answer the questions found at the end of the fact pattern. This is Law Exam 101—the basics.

In reality, your professor has assigned a point value to each legal issue, and that point value is connected in some way to the issue’s degree of complexity and the facts associated with the issue. Your professor expects you to develop your discussion of that issue using some type of IRAC/CREAC/TREAC formula. The only way to get all of the points is to show your work by going through the entire IRAC process for each issue. (Note: minor issues with limited facts and little legal complexity will take much less space to IRAC, which makes sense because those issues are also worth fewer points).

Let’s take a look at a quick example. Maybe in a Torts essay question, one of the issues is whether John was negligent when he drove his car into the back of Mary’s car. Maybe the professor has decided that this first issue was worth ten points. The professor might award one point for identifying the issue, and another point for your conclusion that John was negligent. But there are still eight points outstanding. The professor may assign three points to your discussion of the relevant legal rules that applied for this issue, and another five points for your analysis of how those rules apply to the relevant facts. If you skip from issue identification to conclusion, you will only earn two out of ten points! But even if you go a little further and set out the relevant rules for that issue, you still will only get half of the points unless you explain how those rules apply to the facts in the essay question. A successful essay will fully develop all parts of the IRAC analysis for each issue.

The key is to show your work—don’t leave anything in your brain, but instead put it all on the page!

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Checklists: The One-Page Outline for Exams

Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s that point in the semester when final exams are looming ever closer. What should you do as you finish up the last topics in your outlines and begin that last week of studying before exams? One thing that I suggest to students is to create a one-page checklist of issues they might see on the exam. It’s an easy thing to do. Take an outline that you have done for one of your law school classes, such as Contracts. Go through your outline page by page, making a separate list of all legal issues and sub-issues. Don’t include any details–your checklist should be made up of key words and phrases, not tests, definitions, case names, or other detailed information. Write out the list in the order that it is organized in your outline.

Once you have a completed list, ask yourself: is everything in the order that I would want to use it? An exam essay fact pattern will not include every issue covered in a course, but there may be a set of issues that are related. If your professor covered one issue in the third week of the semester and a related issue in Week 10, you may not have thought to put those issues next to each other in your outline. But the checklist is the time to consider how you might link issues together. Reorder your checklist in the way that makes it most useful for the exam. Remember my Robonaut example from last week–it’s important not just to have the right tools but also to have those tools work best for you.

So, how should you use this checklist? Once you have your checklist organized the way that you want it, commit it to memory. When you go into the exam, use the checklist to make sure that you don’t miss issues in the fact pattern. You can also use the checklist to test whether you know the tests, definitions, and other detailed information that goes along with the key words in your checklist. If you can’t easily access those details in your memory, it is an indication that you should go back to that part of your outline and review it again or maybe create a flashcard or two on that subject.

In the end, a checklist can be a great way to cap your studying for final exams–list away!

 

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Write and Repeat: Using Practice Exams to Study for Finals

Final exams are right around the corner for most law students, if they have not started already. Taking practice exams can be a great way to study for law school finals, but only if you use them properly. Successful law students often use practice exams to test the adequacy of their exam preparation and to simulate the experience of taking exams. Here are some suggestions for how to make practice exams work harder for you:

1. Don’t take practice exams for a particular topic until you have actually studied that topic. Many students take practice exams before they have outlined the material at issue or committed legal rules, tests, elements, etc. to memory. You will not get as much out of a practice exam if you don’t prepare for it as you would for a graded exam. If you don’t have the important stuff committed to memory, you will waste time in taking practice essay exams because you just won’t be able to recall what you need to write an answer. You will also be guessing much more on multiple choice questions, and the result may not adequately reflect your understanding of the material. Study first to make practice exams a productive use of your time.

2. Take practice exams in a simulated test environment–give yourself the same amount of time you will have to take the graded exam, and take the practice exam in a quiet, distraction-free environment. Practicing the entire exam experience trains your body and brain for what is expected during a graded exam, and it can help reduce stress and exam anxiety by desensitizing your brain to taking exams.

3. Allot enough time to go over the practice exam answers once you have completed the exam. Part of the benefit of taking practice exams is comparing your answers to the model essay answers or correct multiple choice answers. Compare what you have done to the model answers and make note of what needs improvement. Read the explanations of the right and wrong answers for multiple choice–it will help you to better understand how questions are constructed as well as gain a deeper understanding of the underlying legal issues. I recommend setting aside the same amount of time to review the answers as you set aside for taking the practice exam to begin with.

4. Use practice exams as a way of fine-tuning your outline and rethinking further exam preparation. If you don’t get something correct or miss an issue entirely, evaluate whether your outline adequately covers that topic. Ask yourself if you need to create a flashcard for a legal rule so that you have it fully committed to memory. Studying is a process, not an destination–practice exams are a way of checking the health of your studying process before you move forward with it.

So, where can you find practice exams? Often, your professors are a great resource for practice exams. Many professors release older versions of their exams, and you can use those to practice for your finals. You may also want to seek out the Academic Support professionals at your law school, as they often have many practice exam resources. If you are paying for your bar prep course as you go, the bar prep providers, such as Kaplan and BarBri, often provide supplemental materials containing practice exams. Many other supplements also offer practice questions–just make sure those questions cover material you have actually covered in class.

Practice exams are one of the best ways to measure your understanding of course materials and reinforce test-taking skills–just write and repeat!

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Law Student Voices: A Review of the BriefCase. App

Other posts on this blog have made reference to the importance of briefing cases for class (here and here). Briefing is an important skill for first year students to master early on, if for no other reason than it forces 1Ls to separate elements of a case into a basic conceptual framework. At the same time, to new law students, briefing can often feel like a relic of the past. Until recently, there has not been a modern equivalent to keep tech-savvy Generation Y on the road to success. Enter: BriefCase., an iPad app.

Creator David Lutz, a third-year student at The University of Michigan Law School, has found a way to quickly and easily separate segments of court opinions and documents into a condensed form. BriefCase. is beautifully designed with smooth transitions, a simple interface, and intuitive controls. Folders are available to keep cases and their briefs organized within the app. Highlighting is color-coded to match the various assignable sections (i.e., facts, procedural history, etc.) and is easy to understand. The student (or practitioner) can also add notes, define terms, or search through documents.

BriefCase highlighter

BriefCase highlighted example

While the app is free to download and enjoy the basic functionality, there are a number of paid features available with a yearly subscription fee of $9.99. So why would anyone want to upgrade if you get the gist of the features for free? Simply put, BriefCase. is an entirely different app with a subscription (note: this author has only utilized the free version). From the FAQ, discussing the difference in account type: Premium Users will be assigned a personal @thebriefcaseapp.com address to automatically import cases from their preferred legal research website. They will also be able to sync with Google Drive and Dropbox, share briefs via e-mail and print their work. Free Users will not be able to remove their work from the application and must import cases manually.

In terms of usefulness, the free version only slightly gets to the point of the app. While students can brief cases, those briefs are trapped on your iPad. There are some professors who are radically opposed to technology and refuse to allow students to use it in the classroom. While there are valid concerns (i.e., Facebook, iMessage, shoe shopping), technology is capable of aiding many students in the learning process.

BriefCase final briefIt should be noted that students choosing to brief cases with this app are essentially copy-pasting rather than synthesizing “nuggets” from the bedrock of text. The effectiveness of this method is likely debatable. There are those who would argue that synthesizing is the whole point to briefing. Additionally, the vast majority of law students use a casebook with edited versions rather than downloading full-text opinions. As such, the best use of BriefCase. is either in the context of legal writing assignments or for young (by experience, not age) practitioners open to incorporating new technology into the workplace.

Verdict: try it out, it’s free! The Premium version appears to be leaps and bounds more useful than its free counterpart, but the free version has largely the same functionality. If you can bear to have your brilliant work confined to one device, this app may be worth a shot.

This review was authored by Justin Iverson, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School.

**This review is not intended to be an endorsement of any product. Its sole purpose is to provide useful information to law students.

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Filed under General, Law Student Voices, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments, Study Tips, Technology

Law Student Voices: Finding Balance in Law School

 

Image courtesy of chanpipat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of chanpipat/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the most difficult tasks for a law student at any stage of law school is to find balance. It is easy to succumb to the many long hours of studying and school-related activities. However, focusing on law school to the exclusion of everything else can be a recipe for disaster. One key ingredient to law school success is taking affirmative steps to care for your mental and physical health.

In our first year legal writing class, we were taught the importance of incubation. Incubation is a period of time, after saturating your brain with research, when you go do something non-law related to allow your brain to make the subconscious connections that cannot be made while actively thinking about a problem. Allowing your brain to quiet for a short period of time can lead to that pivotal moment where the solution to your problem becomes clear. Personally, I took this advice and applied it to all aspects of law school. When life gets overwhelming, I do something active—usually running—in order to re-group and recharge. I also run one mile with a friend before every exam. This helps us to get out some of our physical anxiety and gives us a few minutes for mental preparation. Each person has to choose an activity that fits their life. Even though running is what works for me, for others it may be meditation, yoga, creative writing, reading for pleasure, going on a date with your significant other, seeing a movie, etc.— anything enjoyable that is not law-school related. Obviously, this technique will not work if you let it take away from your studies. But allowing yourself a short break will keep your brain sharp and fresh, ready to dominate the mental gymnastics of law school.

It’s also important for law students to pay attention to their sleep and diet. Busy schedules and dedication to excellence can lead to poor eating and sleeping habits. These two things are very important to mental health. It will be more difficult to pay attention in class or create outlines if you are exhausted. You will spend your energy trying to stay awake rather than absorbing the material. Sleeping enough and eating well will keep your energy up and provide the endurance to keep pushing forward on your law school journey.

My colleagues frequently ask how I have time to run with all the demands of law school. My answer is always the same, how can I not? I know I owe it to myself to take care of my body and my mind, so I find the time. This is my challenge to you: Take care of yourselves, make the time!

This post was authored by Amanda M. Fisher, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School.

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Law School and Robonauts

robonauts

A number of years ago I had a summer faculty fellowship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the robotics lab, where NASA and academic collaborators were designing a robonaut with artificial intelligence. The goal was to create a robot that could help astronauts make repairs to the space station during space walks. The researcher demonstrated the robonaut’s capabilities for us, ordering it to hand him specific tools. Amazingly, the robonaut could “look” at several tools, choose the correct one, and hand it to the researcher. I was impressed–but then the researcher pointed out something even more incredible. Not only did the robonaut know which tool to choose, it also knew that if it picked up the tool (such as a hammer) by its handle, it would be offering it to the astronaut in a way that would make it less helpful. The astronaut would have to grasp the top of the hammer, rather than the handle–the hammer would not be immediately useful. Because the researcher had spent time thinking about the application of his efforts, the robonaut was designed in a way that made it much more useful to astronauts. The robonaut knew to offer the tool so that the astronaut could grasp the handle.

Law students can learn a lot from the robonaut. What’s important in your work is not just what you put into an exam essay, outline, brief, or other writing assignment–it’s also important to consider how that information is presented to the reader. You should always keep in mind your audience when you are writing, and what that audience needs from you in order to find your writing helpful. That’s one of the reasons why law professors tell students to use the IRAC/TREAC/CREAC formulas as an organizational approach to legal writing. The more that you keep in mind your audience when you are writing, the more you will give the reader what he or she needs to follow your legal arguments and analysis.

Law school outlines work in much the same way. You can spend countless hours putting together an outline for a course, but if the information in that outline is not organized properly it is only so useful. Instead, when creating your outline, you should think about how you might apply information from that outline to an exam. If you organize your outline with its application in mind, you will complete exams more efficiently and effectively. So what do I mean by this? Because law students read and brief cases for most classes, there is a natural tendency to organize outlines around cases. But this is not how you would use this information on the exam–instead, the first thing you would need is the key legal rules, principles, tests, or policies that are illustrated by these cases. Analogizing facts in an essay question to facts in a case you read may be a part of your analysis, but first you must discuss the applicable law. If you organize your outline first around legal rules and then use cases and hypotheticals to illustrate those rules, your outline will function like the robonaut–providing you with course information in the most helpful way.

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Filed under General, Law School Exams, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments, Outlines, Study Tips

Law Student Voices: Taking the Wheel on the Journey to JD

Image courtesy of dan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of dan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Legal education has evolved over the decades from being a singular means to an end to just one step in the process. Many years ago, to become a lawyer a person simply got the education. Then upon graduation, employers would come knocking, handing out jobs and benefits. Now the roles have reversed: it is our responsibility to convince employers to take a chance on us. It is no longer enough to earn a J.D. and pass the bar exam. Surprisingly, there is still a lingering expectation, despite the recession and debates about how legal education is losing value, that law students will graduate and “magically” land a great job. We must understand that our legal destiny is largely within our own control.

Each student entering law school needs to not just know but fully understand that we get out of it what we put into it. Granted, that concept is simple and seems obvious, but I’m not sure many students truly grasp it. Drawing from my own experiences and observations, here are some suggestions for putting this principle into practice:

Grades: Law school is hard! The most important thing is to always put 110% effort towards our grades. (One caveat: Performance in law school is not the only definition of living a fulfilling life. More later on balance and holding on to sanity during this journey.) Grades are one of the most visible defining characteristics of a law student, and the outside world, legal or otherwise, will place a heavy emphasis on grades. So, this means: do your reading, ask questions, study with others, and consult trusted mentors to help you with success strategies. Although some people may have more of a natural inclination for understanding the law, that is not a free pass for others to simply give up on excellence because of having different strengths. The Law School Curve makes life interesting and difficult when it comes to grades, but always giving your best efforts will keep you from ever wondering if there was more you could have done.

Get Involved! Extracurriculars such as moot court, trial team, and law review are valuable in so many ways. These activities not only “look good on a resume” but provide practical skills that will be useful later. I’ve had the privilege of competing in two moot court competitions so far. The skills and confidence that I have gained from these experiences are invaluable. Panel interview for a big law firm? Bring it on! In this same vein, internships and externships are equally as valuable. They give us real world experience that shows potential employers that we are willing and ready to tackle hands-on application of what we are learning in the classroom. This is an area ripe for us to take control of our futures. If you are interested in working for a firm or externing with a government office that is not currently affiliated with your school, ask your career services office for guidance on initiating contact. Don’t wait for someone else to get the ball rolling because that person will then have the advantage of impressing a potential employer.

Networking: Everyone knows someone who can help shape our futures, sometimes in the most unexpected places. I have stumbled upon amazing opportunities simply by striking up a conversation with someone new. I highly recommend carrying business cards. Don’t be afraid to let people know that you are in law school. You may be speaking with someone who has a relative or close friend who is the hiring partner at a firm. Also, always keep in mind that, as a lawyer, your name and reputation are all that you have. Act professionally and courteously at all times. You never know when you are making an impression on your next employer.

The key is to take active control of your law school experience—you have the power to make it a good one!

This post was authored by Amanda M. Fisher, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School.

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Taking the Terror Out of Oral Arguments

It’s that time in the semester where law students are preparing for oral arguments in legal writing and appellate advocacy courses or moot court competitions. Students often tell me that they are terrified of oral arguments. Although oral arguments can be intimidating at first if you don’t have much experience–especially if you don’t enjoy public speaking–there are things that you can do to reduce the stress associated with oral arguments and maximize your academic success.

First–and I’m sure you’ve heard it from your professors already–the key is preparation and practice. There is no substitute for preparation, no magic pill that helps you to skip to the front of the line. You must be the “expert” on your oral argument viewpoint. After you have prepared, practice your oral argument until it feels natural. It can also help to practice with friends, asking each other hard questions to simulate the oral argument experience.

Second, imagine your worst case scenarios and develop an action plan for how you will address each challenge if it happens. For example, students often ask me, “What should I do if the judges ask me about a case I have never heard of or haven’t read?” To address this challenge, you might develop an answer like this: “Your Honor, I haven’t had the opportunity to consider X case in light of the issues presented here. I would be happy to submit a supplemental brief in response to this question if Your Honor desires it.” Anticipating possible challenges and determining in advance how you will respond in those situations can reduce stress, take away the fear, and help you respond appropriately if that situation does arise.

Finally, for students who feel intimidated by the judges, it can help to reframe how you think of oral arguments. Think of oral arguments as a type of conversation. Questions are an opportunity for you, not something scary. The person asking you the question is giving you guidance about what information he or she needs to make a decision. If you think about questions using this approach, they become less intimidating–instead, they will be a helpful tool for accomplishing your goals in your argument.

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