There is a simple formula to ace law exams–both essay and multiple choice-in classes such as torts, civil procedure, contracts, and all others.
Many law students don’t know how to take, let alone how to ace law exams. Meanwhile, a difference of a few points can have life-changing effects. But what if you could enter each exam knowing that you were going to beat the curve? What if you could ensure that stress and anxiety wasn’t part of your test taking experience (at least, as to how and how well you will do on the exam, notwithstanding the generalized anxiety common to law students)?
Well there is a simple formula for acing them law school exams.
What is it?
Identifying the universe + practice = confident execution.
What does this mean? You don’t need to know everything. You don’t even need to know most things. You just need to first identify everything. So long as you know what it is you need to know, you can ace your law school exam. This isn’t a trick. I mean literally look at your syllabus, identify the core concepts you discussed in class, and make a list. You’re halfway to an A+ and the career of your dreams.
Now here comes the hard part. You need to practice each concept. Over and over and over. Until you’re bored of how easy it is. It’s ardous, but you have total control over your success. This is the iterative outlining process. It’s a proven method of ensuring you succeed in your exams, avoid inefficient study habits, and eliminate the need to worry as you enter the exam room.
Identifying the Universe
Here’s the open secret: the exam is entirely predictable. It is possible to know, in advance, everything that will be on your exam. Yes, even if your professor has “tricky” questions, doesn’t share anything about the exam during class, or comes up with crazy fact patterns.
This should hardly be a secret (and in fact, is the entire premise of an education in the law), and yet, many students fail to realize this at all during law school. Others realize only too late. A student that understands this in the first or second semester significantly increases their chances of doing well (and reduces their law school-induced existential anxiety).
Law exams are just like the LSAT in that it is the same exam every time (sometimes literally the exact same exam). In fact, for the core classes like civil procedure and torts, it is effectively the same exam at every institution. But unlike the LSAT, law exams are much easier because you are (1) given most of the answers in advance and (2) the only answers you aren’t given comes directly from your own thoughts and analysis.
Many law students go wrong because they focus on the perfect outline. But, the key to preparing for a law exam is to realize that you aren’t tested on outlining. You are tested on your analysis. And while that sounds abstract, it’s actually quite easy, because so long as you have analysis, you will receive points. The hard work comes in identifying, preparing, and familiarizing yourself with that framework.
The majority of law exams are essay exams, although a few are multiple choice. Essay exams prompt the test-taker with a fact pattern, and generally require legal analysis of the issues involved. The perfect answer to an essay exam in law school (1) spots the issues involved, (2) describes the relevant facts, and (3) applies the proper legal analysis to those facts.
As a result, the perfect test taker need only do three things:
- Identify the legal issues in the fact pattern
- Identify the relevant facts
- Apply the principals of law in question to the facts
Requirements one and three go hand in hand as fruit from the same tree. A basic familiarity with the concepts in question (e.g., the elements of a tort) is all that is needed to get full points on (1) and (3). Meanwhile, (2) is simply free points. The only way to lose points on (2) is to run out of time.
So to do well on a law school exam, one only needs a familiarity with, and ability to recreate on paper, the principals of law that are in question. And here’s the best part: once you can recreate the principals of law that are in question, the rest of the exam is also free points, because all that is left is to apply your personal interpretation of the law to the facts (unless your professor is some sort of legal objectivist).
And in that regard, law exams are no more difficult than a color-by-numbers painting.
Your goal is to show up with your numbers (the law) in hand, ready to be filled out with some colorful analysis. You get tested on coming up with the lines, but you still get points for filling in the colors. As long as you fill in all the squares with any color, you win. Once you realize this and reach a point where you can recreate the legal principals, a law exam can actually be fun, instead of the worst moments of your life.
OK, you might be thinking – I can understand that I need to read the facts, and apply the law to them, but what’s the law? Isn’t that all those cases I have to read? This is where the magic is revealed, and the hard but rewarding work of law school starts. Instead of approaching each class as an avalanche of precedent you need to sort through and memorize, instead realize that each class is simply a lot of gravy which provides context for some extremely barebones principals. The thousand cases you read? Gravy. The fact patterns you discussed? Gravy. The time you spent in class scrolling your twitter feed thinking you should have instead just become an influencer, joined the peace corps, or invested in bitcoin? Gravy.
In fact, the entirety of each months-long course is necessarily distilled into a few basic concepts of the law. A law exam is not a place to cram all of this context-gravy into a few pages (which is what the outline-devote think) but instead, an opportunity to demonstrate that you grasped the barebones principals and make your own recipe with them.
This realization was a bit shocking to me. As a panic-stricken 1L three days prior to my civil procedure exam, I hadn’t had time to outline yet. I had absolutely no understanding of civil procedure, which seemed like the most complex class. Beginning to outline, I struggled down to make sense of what I was supposed to know about Motions to Dismiss, which we had discussed for weeks. In a fog of panic and confusion, I finally opened the copy of Glannon’s Examples and Explanations I had neglected for months. The entirety of 12(b)(6) was explained to me in a few sentences. I was floored. I paged through the rest of the book in about an hour, and realized that everything we learned was reproduce-able in a few paragraphs. Suddenly it was clear that most of what we discussed in class didn’t matter at all. I only needed to briefly say what the standard on a 12(b)(6) was and whether it applied to whatever facts my professor threw at me.
My whole law school strategy changed. I stopped stressing about capturing the details of every reading. I stopped pulling my hair out trying to memorize all that gravy. I looked for the general concepts that would be on every exam, and reverse-engineered the exam from those. I took as many practice tests as I could, and went through the iterative outline process. This is the “practice” part of the equation. Those two steps are the key to acing each exam.
For some classes, this was more difficult than others, as the “universe” of what would be on the exam still would take many hours to identify, distill, and re-hash. But, it was, and is, always knowable in advance. Just like the LSAT, you can take as many practice tests as you’d like.
Going into every exam, I didn’t panic or worry, knowing that I had already conquered this exact exam multiple times in the days or weeks prior. Law school was still a grueling experience, and exams were still difficult endeavors (mainly because of the arduous preparation) but I was no longer worried about doing poorly because I didn’t know or didn’t understand the material. The only way to lose was if I didn’t prepare, which was entirely in my control.
Law school is a grueling and difficult experience. If it were a ladder, each exam would be one rung. Law review, reading assignments, organizations and clubs, those are just trimmings and decorations. But with them (and the stressors of the experience), it’s easy to lose focus on the actual rungs of the ladder, and to think that something else is the path to the top. But this isn’t the case. Don’t lose focus on the exam itself, and don’t forget that you know exactly what will be on it. With the right preparation, you can prepare by recreating the exam itself, and take worrying out of the equation.
Thoughts or questions? Get in touch.