The most common way to study for law school exams is to create an outline for each subject, synthesizing everything from the course (case briefs, class notes, etc.) into a single coherent document. Outlining is an effective way to study, as it forces you to consider how cases, statutes, and hypotheticals fit together. A good outline identifies the key legal issues from the course, pulls the rules, definitions, and explanations from the cases related to those issues, and organizes the material in such a way that the student can predict how to use that material on the exam.
Although outlining is a solid approach to your law school studies, some subjects benefit from an even more focused approach – a technique that I’ll call “road mapping.” A road map takes the material related to a legal issue from your outline and turns it into an action plan for how you will analyze that issue on an exam. If you take this approach, each legal issue should have its own road map. When you identify that legal issue in a fact pattern on the exam, you will know exactly how to tackle that issue.
So how do you create a road map?
- First, start with identifying the issue. The issue is the starting point on your road map. You may want to think about what types of facts may signal that this issue is “in play” in the question. For example, if you are taking a Torts exam, and the defendant is identified as an employee, you may ask yourself: “Could there be a vicarious liability issue here?” Usually, you’ve identified all possible issues for a subject in that subject’s outline, so this step is usually easy.
- Second, ask yourself: “What should I do first?” Generally, the first thing that you want to do is identify the appropriate rule for the issue. Does this issue have two or more possible rules? In many subjects, there may both majority rules and minority rules. Some professors may assign jurisdiction-specific reading based on the state your law school is in. And in Contracts, for example, you must determine if you should apply the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) or the common law. As soon as you realize that there is more than one possible rule, you know you must answer a preliminary question. For example: “What jurisdiction are we in?” or “Is this a contract for the sale of goods?” Identify what the steps are for determining the applicable rule. Then based on which rule is chosen, determine what the actual rule statement should be.
- Third, ask yourself: “What should I do next?” Answering this question requires you to think about how the rule should be explained or defined further. Does the rule include a series of elements that must be met? If so, how would you work through those elements in an essay exam? Keep repeating this process until you reach the end of your rule analysis portion of your road map.
- Fourth, ask yourself: “Are there exceptions to the rule that I’ve identified and explained?” Those exceptions should be included in the process as well – after determining if the rule would otherwise be met, you will want to work through the possible exceptions.
- Fifth, ask yourself: “Have courts applied public policy to their analysis of this issue?” If so, you will want to identify and explain what public policies may be applied to the issue, and determine when you would want to go into that policy discussion.
- Sixth, having gone through this process, identify at which points you would want to include facts from the exam hypothetical in the analysis. Note in your road map the places where you would apply the legal rule to the hypothetical facts.
- Finally, note how you would approach the conclusion to any analysis of this issue.
As you can see from the steps above, the key to a good road map is being intentional. Don’t just memorize rules – think about how you would apply those rules to a new set of facts. Your road map should be an action plan for how you would tackle each issue on the exam.
The last month before finals is the perfect time to create road maps. Much of your outlining should be completed by this stage, and you should be focused on reviewing material and taking practice exams as finals approach. An additional benefit to road mapping: you will identify aspects of legal issues that you don’t yet understand, and you have the time at this point to work through those legal issues and go to your professors’ office hours to refine your understanding of the material.