Basic Rules for Taking a Law School Essay Exam

Basic Rules For Taking a Law School Essay Exam

Taking a law school essay exam is similar to the Easter egg hunts you participated in as a child. There were a number of brightly colored eggs scattered around in obvious places. This ensured that all the participants would garner a reasonable number of eggs so no one would come up with an empty basket and go home crying to mother. A smaller number of eggs are hidden in unusual places requiring a diligent search. Then there are the very few "prize" eggs, usually requiring a shovel if you are to end up taking them home to mom and pa.

I certainly am no expert at LAW SCHOOL essay exams. However, here are a few tips that may assist you in loading down your basket with eggs. These are certainly not original and I start by invoking Spitz's maxim: "There's an exception to every rule." I have assumed you are taking the typical ninety-minute, two essay, and closed book exam. Your professor will give you the time he has allotted for each part of the exam and you can adjust accordingly.

1. Rule of 14

There are usually 14 key legal issues per course. You must memorize this list and be able to reproduce it in shorthand form. Practice writing out your list over and over until you can reproduce it in less than one minute.

2. Rule of 10

There are six to ten major cases. You need know the facts from each case by heart. You will see them on the exam. Again, memorize the cases in shorthand form and list them below the 14 issues. Practice so the list only takes you two or three minutes. When the test starts, immediately prepare your 14/10 list and then put it to the side. We will come back to it later.

3. Rule of one-fourth (22.5 minutes for the mathematically challenged).

Take the first one fourth of the time allotted for the law school essay question to outline your answer. Don't worry that everyone else is type, type, typing away. Start by reading the call of the question. Then go to the fact pattern and highlight all the facts: names, dates, numbers, what someone did, what someone said. Facts are your friend. You need to determine this first time through the conflict pairs. Can Mary sue Jane? Can the State prosecute Joe? These are your "case" names. Enter each of them on your outline as a major heading. Now it is time to start gathering your "eggs." Read the fact pattern again and for each conflict pair list ALL the issues raised by the facts. Then under each issue a quick listing of the P's claims and the D's defenses. Read the call of the question again. Answering the wrong question correctly will not put eggs in your basket.

4. Rule of one half (I think you have the picture).

Now start writing your exam. Simply reproduce your outline in bold type. Then put on your Judge's hat. You are the judge and you have to decide this issue. What is the rule, doctrine or case precedent you will use? Think of it like a pyramid. You have to build your legal base and then proceed to the top. Start with "Under": under the common law, under the doctrine of, under Rule so and so, under the XYZ test. You must have these memorized. The best way I have found is to practice writing them out several times. Be sure to list all of the elements and to actually NAME any test. If a case is associated with the element or test, cite the case.

Once you have your rule of law pyramid, put on your student hat and start your next paragraph with "Here." This is where you apply the facts of the case to the issue. Again, NAME the test and discuss ALL the elements, even if you think a particular one does not apply. Law school professors are looking for you to use particular "MAGIC" words or terms and just using them in the rule will only give you partial credit. Repeat them again in your analysis. ALWAYS ARGUE BOTH SIDES. The way to get proficient with this part of the essay is to take past exams. Then compare your answer to the model answer. Time is your enemy so when you hit the 70 minute mark STOP. Even if you are not through STOP. Take a deep breath, you now have at least your "gentleman's C" and have passed this portion of the exam.

5. The However Rule

Start a paragraph with "However." For the next ten minutes, go back through the question. Cross out every fact you have used. Have you used everything you highlighted? If not, why not? Have you missed a conflict pair or an issue? Have you discussed everyone? There is at least one issue hidden slightly deeper in the fact pattern. By slowing down and taking a few minutes to think about the situation, it will come to you. Then quickly do your rule of law and a two or three sentence "Here" discussion. You now have your B+ so stop and move on the next essay and repeat steps one through five.

6. The What If Rule

You are now 160 minutes into the exam and have 20 minutes left. Pull out your 14/10 list and cross out the issues and cases you have used in the exam. The professor will probably test you on 75% of the issues in the course. Your task in the next 20 minutes is to find the issues you have missed. There is an A- issue and there is an A issue. FIND THEM. What if it's this instead of that? What if there is another rule of law that can be built on the base of your pyramid? What if the professor is looking for one of the cases you haven't cited? If you are still stumped, put on your Lawyer hat and start going through your cases. Assume the judge has just ruled against your argument as a matter of law. Your pyramid has just come crashing down around your ears. As an attorney, what are you going to do? The professor has left you clues in the facts so get out your shovel and start digging.

7. The Therefore Rule
I have left out the conclusion on purpose. This is usually the least important part of your law school essay answer and has the fewest points. If and only if you have time, you can put in a conclusion. This was the hardest part for me. It is not the answer but how you present your case that determines your grade.

What is the easiest way to get eggs? Memorize the rules of law and correctly repeat them on the test. All this requires you to do is memorization. Where do you find concise statements of the law? Start with recent cases in your state or look up recommended jury instructions for your state. Find out if your state puts out past bar exam questions and answers. Look at model answers from old exams. A number of schools put old exam banks online for public access. You can find a list on the 1L law student page at A Day in the Life of a Law Student

Once you have your rules down, start practicing your analysis with various fact patterns. Correctly stating the rules and spotting ALL the issues will only get you a C at best. How well you can apply the facts is what will separate you from the rest of the class. DO NOT KEEP GOING OVER AND OVER YOUR OUTLINE.

Start preparing early. If you wait until the end of classes, it will be too late. Do your own outline and then start practicing hypos. There are certain issues that you know will be on the law school essay exam. In contracts, someone is going to make an offer, in torts, someone is going to get hurt and in criminal law, someone is going to be murdered. Be ready for the easy issues so you can spend time digging for the hidden ones. Good luck and happy Easter.

I also highly recommend the law school exam taking strategy at Law Nerds

Law School Essay Test Writing

I highly recommend that you purchase Learning Legal Reasoning: Briefing, Analysis and Theory (Delaney Series) By John Delaney. It is invaluable as you prepare for any law school or bar exam essay. 

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