Tag Archives: legal issues

3 Tips for Spotting Issues in Law School Exams

It’s that time of the semester when law students are beginning to think more about exams, either because they’re in the midst of midterms (if their law school has midterms) or they’re anticipating final exams. One of the skills required for success on law school exams is the ability to spot legal issues. Law school essay questions contain complex fact patterns that incorporate numerous legal issues. The more issues you are able to identify, the more opportunities you will have to show your understanding of legal principles and your analytical abilities—and capitalizing on those opportunities contributes to better grades. Issue spotting can also help you on multiple choice exams. When you are able to identify the specific legal issue being tested in the question, you can use your knowledge of the relevant law to eliminate wrong answers and help you identify the best answer.

With these benefits in mind, here are 3 tips for spotting issues in your law school exams:

1. Outline, Outline, Outline!: The most important key to being able to spot legal issues on law school exams is the preparation that you do before the exam. In recent weeks, we’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring the best approaches to outlining in law school (for more information on outlining, see here, here, here, and here). If you have organized your outline in the right way, you will already have identified the possible types of legal issues on an exam. You will also have an understanding of the important rules and tests that relate to each issue, as well as key policies and relevant case examples.

2. Create an Issue Checklist: One way that you can make sure that you do not miss important issues is to create an issue checklist for each of your classes. Creating a checklist is easy. Just take an outline that you have done for one of your law school classes, such as Property, Torts, or Evidence. Go through your outline page by page, making a separate list of all legal issues and sub-issues. Write out the list in the order that it is organized in your outline. 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. Think of the checklist as something similar to a grocery list. If you were shopping for the ingredients to make a certain recipe, you wouldn’t write the entire recipe out again to take to the grocery store. Instead, you would just list the ingredients you need to purchase. That’s the approach you want to take to the checklist as well. If the outline is the recipe, your checklist is the shopping list of ingredients.

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 hypothetical fact patterns. You can use the checklist to identify legal issues in both multiple choice questions (short hypotheticals) and essay questions (longer hypotheticals).

3. Identify Relationships Among Legal Issues in Advance: There are usually relationships among certain legal issues. If you identify those relationships in advance, you are more likely to recognize them in fact patterns during the exam. For example, one major legal issue in Torts is negligence. But if you see a negligence issue in the fact pattern, you know that there are other legal issues that might also be relevant, such as vicarious liability, joint and several liability, comparative/contributory negligence, various defenses, and various types of damages. As you begin to identify issues in that fact pattern, you should look for any facts that suggest that those legal issues are at play as well.

If you notice, the common theme to these issue-spotting tips is advance preparation. What you do before the exam is what ultimately makes your issue-spotting efforts successful!

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7 Steps to Building Strong Law School Outlines

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I talked about what an outline actually is and addressed some of the general questions law students frequently ask about outlining. Today, I want to explore the outlining process—in other words, how you can get started in creating your own outlines. It can be hard to take the first step in outlining because first-year law students don’t always know where to start. Today, I’m going to walk you through that process.

1. Make Conscious Choices About Organization.

One of the keys to a good outline is organization. Organize your outline around legal concepts, not cases. This can be difficult to do at first. In order to be prepared for class, you focus on cases. That is why your class preparation includes the creation of case briefs. Once you start thinking about preparing for exams, though, you need to flip your preparation upside down—start with legal concepts, and use cases as examples of the concepts.

The order of those legal concepts also matters. Students often use the course syllabus or the casebook’s table of contents to guide them in organizing their outlines. Those sources can be a good starting point, but it is also good to think about how you would use the information on an exam. Don’t feel constrained by the order presented in the syllabus or casebook if a different order makes more sense. For example, the first thing that students often study in Contracts is damages. After you finish studying damages in the first several weeks of your Contracts class, you should go ahead and create that section of your outline. But, if you think about the life of a contract, damages really fits at the end of the process. Later, you will learn about the legal requirements for contract creation and rules regarding contract breaches. As you continue adding material to your outline, you might choose to place the section for contract creation at the beginning of your outline even though you studied it after you studied damages. You then might place the section on contract breaches in between those two other sections. Organizing your Contracts outline in this way will help you to anticipate the order in which you will use that material on an exam.

2. Compile a Thorough List of Issues and Sub-Issues.

For each section of your outline, you will need to identify the legal issues and sub-issues that should be included for that section. You can begin to compile a list of issues and sub-issues for a section by going through that part of the course syllabus and related table of contents material from the casebook. After you have compiled a list from these sources, begin going through your case briefs, class notes, and other course materials, adding to your list of issues. What you are looking for are key words, phrases, and rules.

As you begin to identify key legal issues, group similar concepts or ideas (in other words, the sub-issues) together under each of the issues. Ultimately, your outline will be divided into sections based upon general legal concepts, and within each of those sections you will include more specific concepts.

3. Use Legal Terms of Art But Otherwise Put Your Outline in Your Own Words.

Many of the issues and sub-issues you will identify contain legal terms of art. You should make sure that you include those legal terms of art in your outline, as well as their definitions. Be careful to not just copy information word for word from course materials though. You should attempt to put as much of your outline into your own words as possible. The process of rewording this information will make it yours—you will understand and remember it better. It will also help you to identify legal concepts that you still don’t understand. If you can’t put it into your own words, maybe you need to go back and review that material once again before moving forward, or you may need to go see your professor to ask more questions about that topic.

4. Include All Relevant Information in Your Outline.

Although there are some variations in content depending on the course you are outlining, strong outlines usually contain some common components. First, your outline will contain the legal rules and tests that you have learned through your reading assignments, class lecture and discussion, and other course materials. If a legal test has four elements, you will develop all of the elements of the test as part of the outline. You will also note the basis for each rule, such as the common law, the Restatement, a statute, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Uniform Commercial Code, etc. Make sure that you outline includes definitions for all key terms.

You also want to include any exceptions to the rules. Where there are different rules that may apply to a particular legal issue, depending on the jurisdiction or facts in the case, make sure you set out what those alternative rules are. For example, maybe there is a majority rule which applies in most courts, but a few states take a different approach (in other words, there is a minority rule). Or maybe there are differences between the common law approach to an issue and the approach taken in the Restatement.

In some subjects, there may be defenses that apply in certain situations. One example that illustrates this approach happens in Torts. Maybe the plaintiff claims that the defendant has committed the intentional tort of battery because the defendant grabbed the plaintiff by the arm. The defendant might assert that he acted in self-defense, based upon the fact that the defendant grabbed the plaintiff’s arm as the plaintiff was about to stab him with a knife. It is important to note any defenses that correspond with the legal issues you are outlining, and fully develop those defenses as you would develop other sub-issues.

Furthermore, in some courses policy arguments may also be important. In classes where the courts or your professor has focused on policy arguments as part of the analysis, you should also integrate policy arguments into the relevant places in that course outline.

There are also some other things that you may need to include in your outline, such as context information. For example, when you study personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure, you read Pennoyer v. Neff. Although not everything is this case is still good law, it may provide helpful context for your understanding of the current state of personal jurisdiction law. Context information, such as the history behind a legal concept, may help you to better organize what you have read regarding that subject.

5. Include Cases and Hypotheticals as Examples of Issues, Not the Focus of the Outline.

You may have noticed that so far I haven’t really talked much about cases. As I mentioned before, your outline should focus on the legal concepts you have been studying rather than on the cases. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include cases at all though—instead, you should use them as examples of the legal principles you are outlining. The same holds true of hypotheticals introduced by your professor during class. You may choose to include hypothetical examples from class to remind yourself of how a particular legal rule may be applied to a specific set of facts.

6. Make Note of the Connections Between Legal Issues.

It is important to make note of your observations about how each legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline. For example, let’s say you are outlining your Torts class. For your section on negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply, depending on the fact pattern.

7. Include Your Professor’s Specific Comments in Your Outline.

Finally, you should make note of any specific comments that your professor has made about a legal issue, or anything that he or she stressed in class about that issue. Sometimes students do this by adding a “PROF” label to it, putting the note in bold, or otherwise signaling that what is being included came from the professor.

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Key Components of a Case Brief

Now that we’ve explored how to approach reading cases in law school, let’s focus on what should be included in your case brief: the key components of the case.

The Parties: First, look at the preliminary information found above the case and ask: Who are the parties? One way to identify the parties is by their names. Thus, in the case Smith v. Jones, the parties would be “Smith” and “Jones.” But the parties are also given titles, based upon their roles in the case. At the trial level, parties are usually known as “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In an appellate case, the parties may be known as “appellant” and “appellee,” or “petitioner” and “respondent,” depending on the court. (At the trial level, the plaintiff is the party who brought the case into court. At the appellate level, the appellant or petitioner brought the case into court.) Your brief should note both the names of the parties and their roles in the case.

The Court: The preliminary information also tells you which court heard the case. Sometimes the court is a state court, and other times it is a federal court. It may be a supreme court, or an intermediate appellate court. Include the court that decided the case in your case brief.

The Citation: The preliminary information tells you where the case was published, in other words, the citation. The cases in your casebook were originally published in bound volumes known as reporters. The citation creates a quick way of finding that original version of the case. For example, one citation might be 347 U.S. 483. The case would be found in the United States Reporter, which publishes U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The volume number would be 347, and the first page of the case would be page 483. (Don’t panic if you don’t always know what the citation means at this point—you will learn a lot more about citations in your legal research and writing classes.)

The Date: The final important piece of preliminary information is the date, which is found in parentheses after the citation. It’s important to make note of the date that the case was decided. In many classes, you will trace how legal issues developed over time, and the dates will help you relate multiple cases to each other.

Now that we’ve covered the preliminary information, let’s take a look at the various components found in the text of the case.

Procedural History: The procedural history is the history of the case. Include in the procedural history (1) what courts the case has traveled through, (2) what happened in previous court proceedings, and (3) how the case ended up in the current court.

The Issues: One way to find the issues is to ask: “What are the big legal questions that the court is considering? What has to be resolved or answered?” Sometimes the court states explicitly what the issues are. The court may say something like, “On appeal, the appellant asks us to consider whether . . . ” Or, the court may say, “The first issue is whether . . . ” In other cases, the court may not be as explicit—you’ll have to dig a little deeper to identify the issues. Keep in mind that issues are related to the law. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what the issues are, you can often use the casebook’s Table of Contents, Chapter and Section headings, case introductions, and case notes (located after the case) to help identify the issues.

Facts: There are really two types of important facts: “necessary” facts and “context” facts. Necessary facts are facts that are legally relevant—in other words, facts that the court relied upon in resolving the case’s legal issues. In contrast, context facts are facts that aid our understanding of the necessary facts—they’re not essential to the court’s decision but give a more complete picture of what’s going on in the case. Not every fact mentioned in a case is necessary or provides context. Most cases also contain extra facts that can distract you from what’s really important in the case. This is why you should sift through the facts before creating your case brief.

The Holding: The holding is the answer to the question, “How did the court resolve the issue(s)?” In other words, it is the answer to the legal questions that were asked in the case. Sometimes courts will label something as the “holding” in the case. Be cautious about these types of labels. Often, what the court calls the “holding” is actually the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of its holding.

The Reasoning: The most important component of your case brief is the court’s reasoning, or its rationale, for the holding. To determine what the court’s reasoning was, ask: “How did the court arrive at the holding? How did the court explain the answer to the legal questions asked in the case?” You can identify the court’s reasoning by looking for the places where the court is applying law (statutes, regulations, or other cases) to the facts. In your case brief, make note of the law that the court used to answer the legal question(s). Put this law into your own words rather than writing it out word for word—you will understand and remember it better in the future. After identifying the relevant law from the case, look closer at how the court applied that law to the facts. Were there particular facts that the court viewed as important to its analysis? Were there other facts that the court said were not important?

Sometimes the court also applies policies in their analysis of the law and facts. When a court considers policy arguments, it is weighing the potential effects on society of different approaches to the issues. If the court discusses policy arguments in its reasoning, you should note those policies and how the court applied them.

The Judgment: Finally, make note of the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of the holding. The judgment refers to how the appellate court resolved the case on appeal, and it may provide instructions to the trial court. Look for words such as “affirmed,” “reversed,” or “reversed and remanded.”

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