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

Image courtesy of Gualberto107/

Image courtesy of Gualberto107/

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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Filed under General, Law School Exams

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