Tag Archives: outlines

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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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 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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Predicting the Future

Law students hear constant reminders about the need to outline their courses. Often students approach outlining as a chore that must be done, but they don’t understand why outlining is so valuable. As we’ve discussed previously, outlining helps law students to gain a deeper understanding of the law and synthesize various course materials. Today, I want to talk about how to use outlining to predict the future. Most law students don’t realize that they can use a well-developed outline to predict the types of legal issues that will appear on the exam.

So how can you do this? In “Perfecting the Law School Outline,” I stated that the first step to creating a strong outline is to organize it around legal issues rather than cases.  I also described the various categories of information that should be included in the outline. For purposes of prediction, some of the most important categories of information include: policy arguments; competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); legal issues where there are a range of cases and hypotheticals illustrating complexity in how courts apply the law; and observations about how one legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of 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).

Professors like 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 related legal issues must be addressed in the essay. If, when you create your outline, you look for those nuances for each legal issue and include relevant, focused information about those categories of information, you will be able to identify possible exam topics. Questions will be less surprising to you, and you will have already thought about that legal issue in a context that will be more applicable to the exam. Specifically, you will have organized the law in a way that allows you to more easily access it for exam purposes (in other words, anticipating part of the IRAC/CREAC/TREAC format for legal analysis). The result of outlining in this way is less time thinking and organizing once you are in the exam, giving you more time to demonstrate your understanding and ability to apply legal concepts.

In the end, a good outline is a way of taking more control over your learning process. Doing the hard work during the outlining process translates into less stress and better outcomes.

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Perfecting the Law School Outline

It may sound crazy to talk about how to outline when we are already three quarters of the way through the school year, but outlining is a skill that you can constantly improve—whether you are a 1L, 2L, or 3L. I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss “best practices” for outlining. Maybe after reading this post, you will discover something that strengthens your outlining skills and make your outline do more work for you.

Of course, we use the word “outline,” but a law school outline can be so much more than a document organized by Roman numerals. While it is certainly possible to organize information from course materials using the traditional Roman numeral format, outlines can utilize many forms. Some students use bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information, while others use the tables function in Microsoft Word to create organized sections. Still others find Mind Mapping a useful technique. Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. You also may discover that what works for one class may not work as well for another. Outlines are personal and should support your unique learning style.

One reason why the outline is so important is that it really is the place where you learn the law. By synthesizing various course materials (case briefs, class notes, other assigned reading, etc.), you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and see connections among legal concepts. You also identify legal issues that you don’t entirely understand—topics that you need to spend more time on, go back and read about again, or set up an appointment to meet with your professor to go over.

So what should your outline contain? Regardless of format, all strong outlines contain the same basic types of information. The first step is to make sure that your outline is organized around legal issues rather than cases. For each section, start with the legal issue that you are going to focus on. Make sure each section has the following parts, as applicable: (1) history/development of the legal issue over time (For example, when you studied 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); (2) any rules/tests/factors relevant to the legal issue, along with any definitions of key legal terms; (3) policy arguments relevant to how courts decide this legal issue; (4) competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); (5) cases and hypotheticals illustrating components of the outline described above (in very brief form, focusing on facts relevant to understanding the legal issue that is the focus of this part of the outline); and (6) any observations about how this legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of 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).

If your outline contains this information, it will be the only thing that you need to study for purposes of the final exam.  And, most importantly, you will gain a deeper understanding of legal concepts that will stay with you–not only for the final exam but for the bar exam and the practice of law.

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The Spring Break Balance

For many law students, classes have dragged the last few weeks. You may find it more difficult to come up with inspiration to tackle casebooks, outlines, and writing assignments. Spring Break shines like a beacon of hope in the distance.

Students often ask what they should do during Spring Break. Should you stay home and get your outlines in order so that the rest of the semester goes smoothly? Should you vacation with your family in Florida? Should you travel with friends on that sweet all-inclusive trip to Mexico? For each student, the decision is personal. You must make the right decision for you. Regardless of that decision, the key to having Spring Break contribute to your academic success is balance.

So, what do I mean by balance? Let’s look at the student who focuses on outlines and reading during Spring Break. One approach is to continue your regular study schedule throughout Spring Break, showing up each morning to the law school library and working 8 or more hours each day. By the end of the week, you’ve accomplished a lot. Your outlines for Torts, Civil Procedure, and Contracts are up-to-date, and you’ve completed most of your reading for next week’s classes. This is a great accomplishment–don’t get me wrong. But having spent your entire Spring Break in the library, you may be tired when classes start back the following week. There are still seven weeks before finals, and it’s difficult to keep up the pace until May without a break. An alternative approach is to split your Spring Break between your studies and giving yourself a mental break. Work all day long for only part of the break, or work only half days.  In the remaining time, do something FUN! Go hiking in a state park, visit the zoo, go bowling.  Connect with friends and family, see a movie, take your dog for long walks, read a novel.  Give yourself permission to take time off as well as work during the break.  Having recharged your mental batteries, you’ll come back to your studies refreshed and inspired.

If you travel during Spring Break, balance is also key. You’ve probably heard people say that they needed another vacation to recover from their vacation. You don’t want that experience. Rather than recharging batteries, a Spring Break trip may zap your mental energy and make the second half of the semester even tougher. Consider traveling for a shorter time period (4 or 5 days) or return home at least a couple of days before classes resume. You can then rest up before school starts back, get household chores (like laundry) done, and read for those first few classes–avoid starting out behind the week after Spring Break.

If you decide to study during your travels, be realistic about what you can accomplish and don’t drag along every casebook. Instead, set one or two goals for yourself and schedule time each day to work on that goal. For example, concentrate on getting your Contracts outline in good order, and only pack materials that relate to that goal. Once you figure out that you have a couple of hours free each morning, set that time aside to work on your outline.  You’re more likely to accomplish something during Spring Break if you set realistic goals for yourself and create a plan for how to accomplish those goals.  The key is balance!

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