Category Archives: Law School Exams

Case Briefing Shortcuts

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the past several posts, we’ve explored how to read and brief cases for your law school classes. As you’ve read those posts, you’ve probably started to realize what a time-consuming process law school studying really is! All that reading and briefing takes a lot of time, actually—and that’s why I think a cautionary note is appropriate at this point. As you read and prepare for class, resist the urge to take shortcuts. The reading and note-taking process I’ve described in my previous posts is really what you need to do to understand the material when you are a new law student.

You may hear upper-level students talking about “book briefing”—in other words, just underlining or highlighting material in the casebook and jotting a few notes in the casebook margins, without actually completing a case brief. Some students may eventually get comfortable enough with their reading that they can book brief and get by, but book briefing is not a sound approach to studying during your first year of law school for sure, and for most students it doesn’t work well even after the first year. You will get more and more efficient in your reading and case briefing over time, but you still need to do the things that give you a deeper understanding of the assigned reading and organize material in a way that will be helpful to you later, as we’ve talked about before.

You should also avoid the temptation to rely upon other students’ case briefs or commercially prepared briefs—it may seem easier and quicker to take this approach in the short term, but you will not know the material as well and will not remember it as much when you are studying later for the exam. When you rely too much upon commercially prepared materials, you are not thinking about the subject in the way that your professor has organized your course. Commercial materials can be valuable, but as a supplement—not your primary source of information for the course. Don’t forget who will be grading your exams–it’s rarely the person who created those commercial briefs.

Moreover, don’t forget that many of the courses that you are taking in law school, including all of the first-year courses, are on the bar exam. The harder you work to really understand the law in each of these courses now, the better foundation you will have when you start studying for the bar exam after you graduate.

The bottom line: there is no real shortcut to law school success—if you cut corners with your studies now, you will find it harder to be successful on your law school exams—and on the bar exam. Shortcuts are really a dead end when it comes to learning.

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Filed under Bar Exam, Grades, Law School Exams, Pre-Law, Study Tips

What Should You Do the Summer Before Starting Law School?

Congratulations on being admitted to law school! The next few years will be a time of challenges, opportunities, frustrations, and successes. Law school will be hard work, but, if you approach it the right way, it will also be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. So, what should you do this summer before you enter law school? Here are a few suggestions:

Learn more about what to expect during your first year in law school. For many law students, the first semester of law school can be a real shock. Law school is like nothing you have ever experienced. Talk to current law students and lawyers about what to expect during the first week, month, and semester in law school. Ask them what they wished they had known as a new 1L. There are also a number of good books out there for new law students. These books can provide more information about what it is like to be a law student, what skills you need to develop (and even some suggestions about how to develop those skills), and what the language of law school means. You don’t need to read every book out there though—one or two is probably sufficient to get you started.

Some books that you may find helpful (in no particular order):

Starting Off Right in Law School (2nd ed.), by Carolyn J. Nygren. This book is an interesting read, as it uses a fictional case to introduce students to the vocabulary and skills of law school and legal practice.

Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, by Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul. This book discusses the differences between undergrad and law school approaches to studying, explains how legal reasoning works and how to apply legal reasoning to class and exam preparation. Much of the focus is on how to perform well on law school exams, and it may be most helpful to read once you are part way through your first semester.

1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (3rd ed.), by Andrew J. McClurg. This book provides a straightforward explanation of what to expect during the first year of law school, including suggestions and comments from former law students.

Expert Learning for Law Students (2nd ed.), by Michael Hunter Schwartz. This book provides a lot of useful advice about how to tackle the various skills you need to develop and tasks that you must accomplish as a law student. It also helps you to understand more about how you learn, and how you can approach law school based upon your learning preferences.

Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert (2nd ed.), by Ruth Ann McKinney. This book focuses specifically on how you can develop the reading skills you need to effectively and efficiently read for law school.

Learning Outside the Box: A Handbook for Law Students Who Learn Differently, by Leah M. Christensen. This book is a great resource for students who learn differently from the average student, including those who have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities that affect the way they learn.

This is not an exclusive list—there are certainly other books out there that may be helpful in introducing you to what to expect in your first year of law school. Ask law students you know about any books or other resources they have found particularly helpful.

Make your health a priority. There are a lot of studies out there that demonstrate links between taking good care of yourself—eating healthy foods, getting exercise, and getting enough sleep—and cognitive skills and stress management. Make lifestyle changes that improve your health even before law school begins, and continue those new habits into the school year. You will be better off for making your health a priority in the long run.

Finally, take some time to relax and recharge your batteries before law school begins this fall. Some people try to do too much during the summer before law school—reading every book about being a successful law student, trying to get a head start on first-year law school course materials, etc. Your first semester of law school will be an intense, demanding experience, and it is important to go into it feeling rested and ready to tackle the challenge. Read for fun. Go on long walks. Spend time with friends and family. Do the things that make you happy and renew your spirit!

Stay tuned to this blog over the next couple of months–I will be adding additional posts on this topic!

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Making the Most of Summer Law School Classes

Image courtesy of naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many law students choose to take classes during the summer because (a) they want to graduate in less time, or (b) to reduce the number of classes they have to take in future semesters. Students often believe that summer classes will be “easier” because they are only taking one or two classes instead of five. Although there is definitely a benefit to taking fewer classes at one time, the drawback is that summer classes generally last half the time. Instead of lasting 14 or 15 weeks, the entire course is usually crammed into 7 weeks.

How can you make sure that you obtain the greatest benefit from taking summer classes and set yourself up for academic success? Here are four tips for making the most of your summer law school classes:

1. Create a study schedule, and stick to it. It can be tempting to take a relaxed approach to your studies in the summer, as there are so many distractions: summer movie series, outdoor activities, longer days . . . you get the picture. You should definitely make sure you take some breaks and enjoy your summer, but you still have to take a disciplined approach to your studies. The best way to do this is to create a study schedule for the summer semester. You don’t want to get behind in a class that only lasts 7 weeks.

2. Start outlining early; don’t wait until the last minute. Students often wait until several weeks into a semester to start outlining. If you take this approach in the summer, the outline will never be finished. Outline each topic as you finish it in class, and you will be better prepared for the final exam. Even though it’s summer, you still have to do the same things you need to do during the rest of the school year to be successful.

3. Don’t miss class unless you absolutely have to. Missing one class during the summer is often the equivalent of missing a week during the rest of the year. When a class has a condensed schedule, it can be difficult to get caught up if you miss even one class. Save class absences for true emergencies, and have a plan for getting quickly caught up if you have to miss class.

4. Learn from the past; don’t repeat it. Make sure that you review your exams from Spring Semester. If you did not do as well as you hoped in a class, set up an appointment to go over your exam. I’ve also discussed how to get the most out of past grades here and here. Use those past final exams as a basis for how to approach future exams.

Taking summer classes can contribute to your overall success as a law student if you approach them in the right way. Make the most of your summer studies!

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Making Sense of Law School Grades: Three Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Final Grades

Now that the semester is over, the wait for final grades has started. But even once those grades are released, law students don’t always know what to do with them. If your grades are good, of course you celebrate—and if they’re bad, you may be depressed. But what do these grades really mean? How can you make sense of your law school grades and get the most out of them?

Exams are really just a means of assessing how you communicate information that you learn, and grades are one component of that assessment. I’ve previously talked about how you can use grades to get more out of graded assignments. Here are three more ways to get the most out of your law school grades:

  1. Grades can be a way of calibrating your own perceptions of how you perform on exams. Did you do as well (or as poorly) as you thought you did on your exams? If you didn’t do as well as you thought you did in your classes, you should consider whether you were overconfident in your approach to your exams. You may need to rethink your approach to studying and/or attacking the exam in order to obtain the grades you want. In contrast, some students beat themselves up about how they did right after each exam ends, but in reality they performed much better than they thought. Regardless of which type of student you are, you can use grades as a way of adjusting your own understanding of how you perform on exams.
  2. Grades can help you better understand your strengths and weaknesses in taking exams. Look for patterns in your final grades. Did you do better on multiple choice exams that you did on essays, or vice versa? How did you do on exams in which time management was more important? What are the common aspects of exams that you did particularly well on versus those on which you did not perform as well as you had hoped? Understanding these patterns can help you create a plan for how to approach exams in the future.
  3. Grades can help you to evaluate particular test-taking strategies that worked (or didn’t work) for you. Sometimes students will do something during one exam that they didn’t do in other exams, and they get different grades based upon those different approaches. For example, did you outline before you started writing in some classes but not others? Create a checklist for one class but not the others? Hand write versus use your computer? Use highlighters to break down essay questions on only one exam? Think about any differences in how you approached exams from one class to the next, and see if there are any corresponding differences in grades.

One trait of successful people is that they are able to learn from past experiences and apply what they have learned to their future endeavors. Take an active approach to learning from your final grades, and you will be on the path to success!

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Sleep for Success: Stealing Time from Sleep Doesn’t Help You Do Better

The other day I had a student tell me that he planned to stay up all night studying for his next final exam. His statement brought back memories of my own years in law school, studying in a coffee shop early in the morning before the Civ. Pro. final as some of my fellow law students–those who had stayed up all night studying–either crashed with their heads on the tables or drank gallons of coffee in a desperate attempt to make their brains function. One of my friends once told me that, during one of her finals, a student fell asleep in the middle of the exam. Other students sitting around him surreptitiously tried to wake him up without causing a disruption to the rest of the class.  My friend looked over again about 20 minutes later, and he was once again asleep.

At the time, staying up very late–or even all night–may seem to make sense as you are studying for your final exams. The final exam period is a very stressful time, and there never seems to be enough hours in the day for studying. Law students may have four or five finals during a 10 to 14 day period, and often the entire grade for each course hangs in the balance. If you didn’t get your outlines done before the semester ended, you may still be scrambling to synthesize course information and memorize key concepts. If you don’t sleep less, then how will you get enough time to study before finals?

The problem with this reasoning is that sleeping less does not necessarily mean a better outcome on the exam. You’ll be more tired, have a harder time focusing on what you are doing (either studying or actually taking the exam), or even fall asleep at critical moments, like the law student in my friend’s class. Just because you study longer doesn’t mean you’ll do better. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived students don’t perform as well as those who get enough sleep, and they’re more susceptible to getting sick. It’s also important to remember that you are not just trying to learn this information for a short period of time–you are studying legal concepts that you will be tested on again during the bar exam.

So what should you do instead? Ideally you should study for your exams throughout the semester by outlining and creating flashcards. If you spread out your studying throughout the semester, you will not feel as much pressure during the exams period. It will be easier to balance studying with sleeping and taking good care of yourself by eating healthy and exercising.

At this stage though, you are already in the midst of exams. Lectures about the perils of procrastination aren’t going to help you with your immediate problems. Instead, you should take stock of where you’re at with each of your classes and how much time you have left before the final exams. Triage your studying. What are the most important things that need to be accomplished for each class? For example, it won’t be possible to create an entire outline for a course in 48 hours. A more productive approach at that point may be to start by creating the one-page checklist of topics I have described before, but this time drawing from your class notes and casebook table of contents. The checklist is a master list of the topics that could be tested on the exam. Once you have the checklist, you can evaluate which topics you feel pretty comfortable with versus those that you realize need more work. By consciously evaluating each course, you will be able to spend your time on those topics you’ve identified as needing more work, rather than on reviewing information you already know. Triage studying may not be a perfect solution (less procrastination would be better), but it is a better option than stealing time from sleep.

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The “Best Answer” Dilemma: How to Succeed at Law School Multiple Choice Exams

Image courtesy of nongpimmy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nongpimmy/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the reasons why law students often dread multiple choice exams is that questions may have more than one possible right answer. In fact, many multiple choice questions instruct the student to choose the “best” answer. There’s nothing more frustrating than choosing a seemingly “correct” answer but still getting the question wrong.

So how can you resolve the “best answer” dilemma and achieve success on your multiple choice exams? Here are some tips for approaching these questions on law school exams:

  • First and foremost, always approach law school multiple choice questions by eliminating the wrong answers first rather than looking for the right answers. This may seem counterintuitive. But eliminating obviously wrong answers gets rid of answers that are distracting and may lead you astray. It also improves your chance of choosing the correct answer if you are not able to determine which answer is best and have to guess.
  • Second, don’t just choose the first answer that seems right. Instead, make sure that you evaluate all possible answers and determine whether any other answer could also be correct. It’s hard to decide which one is the best answer if you don’t evaluate them all.
  • Finally, if you narrow your options down to two possible answers, both of which seem right, then you should analyze which answer is best. One way to do this is by asking yourself which answer is more specific. If one answer is fairly general but the other is much more narrow in its application, the narrow answer is usually the better answer. If one references a general rule of law but the other incorporates very specific details from the question’s fact pattern, the detailed answer is probably the better answer.

Ultimately, the key is to be methodical in your approach to evaluating the answers. Approaching each multiple choice question in the same way will help you solve the “best answer” dilemma.

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Racing Against the Clock: Time Management Techniques for Law School Exams

Image courtesy of Winond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Winond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Anyone who’s ever been in law school has had this experience: you’re writing or typing along on your exam, fingers cramping and back stiff from sitting in the same position for too long. All of a sudden, you look up at the clock and realize that you only have five minutes left before the exam is over. The problem: you have at least 30 minutes’ worth of material to cover before you will complete the final essay question. All you can do is rush to get as much of it crammed in as possible. The end result is that your essay ends in jumbled confusion, and your grade is lower than you had hoped for.

Time management can be a challenge for many law students, even when they have studied hard before the exam. Many law school exams are intentionally designed to take more time than you will actually be given. In order to succeed on those types of exams, you need to not only be prepared for the content of the exam but also have a strategy for how to tackle the exam. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for developing your own time management strategy:

  1. Always allocate time by the number of points or percentage of grade that each section of the exam is worth. For example, maybe your exam consists of two essays and 30 multiple choice questions. Each essay is 1/3 of the total exam grade, and the multiple choice is 1/3. The exam is scheduled for 3 hours. You should allot 1 hour for each of the essays and 1 hour for the multiple choice (each multiple choice question getting two minutes). Time should almost always be allotted according to how much that part of the exam is worth. Once the exam starts, calculate your end times for each part of the exam—and most importantly, stick to those times! Don’t be tempted to “borrow” time from one part of the exam to have more for another.
  2. If you have control over which part of the exam you take first, think carefully about your plan of attack. When the exam consists of both multiple choice and essays, students invariably want to tackle the essays first because that is where they feel the time constraints the most. But when you tackle the essay first, there is a temptation to “borrow” time from the multiple choice section if you aren’t done with the essay when the time allotted for that section runs out (see suggestion #1). To avoid that temptation, I recommend taking the multiple choice section first. If you have extra time left over once you complete it, you can save it for a later section (or for reviewing the multiple choice one more time), but you will make sure that you give the multiple choice the time that it is worth.
  3. Finally, outline or chart your essay answers before you start writing. So many students start right in on writing their essays without organizing their thoughts first. There is a temptation to do this when time gets tight because students know they will not be graded on that outline. But effective outlining proves more efficient in the long term, as it allows you to determine what issues you want to cover in your essay and what facts relate to those issues. You will see which issues are minor and don’t deserve as much time in your essay versus those issues that have numerous relevant facts and will be worth more credit. By jotting down facts that go with each issues, you also create efficiency because you will not have to go back and read the fact pattern again and again as you write your essay.

The key to managing time in law school exams is creating your time management strategy before the exam even starts, and then sticking with it. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish in a limited amount of time!

 

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Filed under General, Grades, Law School Exams, Outlines

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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