Law school exams are like poisonous snakes or blind dates: the more you know about them in advance, the less likely they will KILL you.
(If you think the analogy is far-fetched, I can only say you have never been on a truly bad blind date.)
So let's get to know the enemy. Let's look at (1) What do law school final exams actually look like? (2) How do they differ from your exams in college and (3) How to become comfortable taking law school final exams (largely by getting taking many practice exams).
Law school exams are different from undergraduate or college exams in many ways that are surprising to first-year law students.
Imagine it: You spend all semester reading interesting criminal law cases, studying the philosophical underpinings for criminal law.
You have memorized everything the professor has said and every word in the case book.
You show up for your in-class exam and see this:
Question 1. Larry, Moe and Curly drive to the movies. Larry carries a gun, unbeknownst to Moe but not Curly. Curly is high on LSD, which only he knows, and is an undercover police officer. Moe is driving and has had four beers. They spot a 7-Eleven, and quickly agree to rob the store to get money for popcorn. All three enter the store. Curly tells the cashier: "Give us all your money, now!" Moe notices a pretty girl in the corner and rapes her. Larry suffers a flashback from the rape he suffered as a child by his uncle; he gets confused, believes Moe to be his uncle and shoots him. Larry misses Moe, instead hitting and killing the cashier. Moe runs away and flags down a police cruiser. He tells them that Larry and Curly attempted to rob the 7-Eleven and killed the cashier. He fails to mention any potential criminal acts he may have committed. Instructions: Assess the potential criminal liability of Larry, Moe and Curly, including any defenses they may raise.
You finish reading the question and begin to sweat.
How do I answer this? you think to yourself. How am I supposed to show the professor that I memorized all of the cases we studied? What is this?
2. Okay, law school exams are weird. Why? What is going on?
If it's not clear already, law school is simply a different beast. To do well on your law school exams, you need to consciously make note of the ways in which you may subconsciously believe law school to just be a continuation of college.
Here is a list of ways in which law school is different from college, and specifically how law school exams are different from college exams. If you understand these differences, you are half way to law school success; if you fail to take note of these differences, I believe you will have problems. So here we go:
In college, your grade maybe depended on a mid-term exam and a final exam, along with a final paper and perhaps some weekly assignments. While your final may be worth 25 to 50% of your grade, it isn't the be-all and end-all of your grade that semester. In law school exams are worth 100% of your grade; there usually are no midterms, just finals.
In college or graduate school, your exams usually involved some form of regurgitation. You had to write well (in the humanities and social sciences), but generally you might be asked to compare, contrast or synthesize different theories or works. In the end, a professor wants proof that you did the reading and went to lectures.
In law school exams are different: there is little if any "regurgitation" or recitation of course material. You won't ever be asked to repeat the facts of any laws or cases, or even to synthesize or compare or contrast different cases. The key difference is that you will be required to apply laws and cases to new facts you have never seen before--this is the infamous "issue spotter" exam. To be even clearer about the difference from college, in law school, you can memorize every detail--every line in the case book and every word your professor says in class--and still not get an A on your final exams.
In many colleges, especially in the humanities and social sciences, there is rampant grade inflation. For instance, at the Ivy League college I attended (and was told a million times I was lucky to be at because I was grew up in the middle of nowhere), fully one-third of the class graduated with high honors, magna cum laude, and half of the class graduated with some kind of honors. Ridiculous. Was everyone really above average?
But in law schools exams are graded on a forced curve, and honors are harder to come by. The professor is required to give out mainly Bs or B+s. Typically, depending on the class and the law school, somewhere between 3-5% of students or less will get a flat A; only 10-15% will get an A or A-. To get an A at all is an accomplishment. Where I went to law school, less than 10% graduated magna cum laude.
In college, if you don't do well your first year (I did not) you have time to adapt and get better. Many students I know, including myself, had a rough first year in college grade-wise, and still got good jobs, got into good graduate programs, etc.
The grades you get on your law school exams your first year are disproportionately important to your legal career. They determine what summer job you get your second year in law school, which usually becomes your permanent job; whether you get on law review or law journal (another mark of prestige and unnecessary work); and whether you get a good clerkship after law school. Many students I know in law school got bad first-year grades and did not get any of these things. Perhaps first-year grades shouldn't matter so much, but the sad fact is that they do.
All of these are important, but mean little unless you take the last, critical step:
It is absolutely critical that you take as many practice exams as you can the weeks before finals.
Can I say that again?
It is absolutely, positively, super critical that you take many practice exams.
Look, law school exams are really strange and foreign to everyone before they attend law school. How can you do well if the first time you encounter a law school exam is during finals?
This is such an important point that I have created a video for you to watch on YouTube about this (I work with the cool dudes from 7Sage on this):
Now, in this video I say a lot about "why," and less about "how."
So let me discuss the "how."
There is a lot of advice I can provide, and I may say more elsewhere about this. But here are some tips on taking practice law school exams.
But before I give tips on how to take practice exams, I should tell you what I mean by "practice exams"? For your purposes, they will be one of three things:
Old exams given by your professor for a given class - these are the best practice exams if you can get your hands on them. (Some even provide model answers--study those like crazy)
Official practice exams offered by your professor - Some professors are nice and offer you the service of taking a practice exam to be graded by a teaching assistant. I did this twice in law school. If your professor offers one of these, please please take it! And get the feedback from the teaching assistant.
Fact patterns provided in treatises or commercial outlines that you read before law school starts - model problems given in such books are a decent way to study, but you should really only resort to these if you cannot get your hands on (1) or (2).
The funny thing about these tips is that they will mean even more to you if you actually take practice exams. But you have to start somewhere, so read these tips once before taking any practice exams, and then come back to these after you have taken some practice exams. So here we go with . . .
***Law School Hacker's FREE official practice exam tips:***
If you can get your hands on old exams given by your professors, briefly review them at the beginning of the semester so that as your you have a sense of what issues will be important to your professor during the course of the semester.
When you should start taking practice law school exams: AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Do not wait for classes to be finished and for your reading period to start. You need enough time to self-diagnose and correct any holes in your legal knowledge or issue-spotting ability.
How you should take practice law school exams: Do so under actual exams conditions. That is, if you know your professor will give a three-hour in-class, closed-book final, then set aside three hours and take the exam without your outlines, books and notes.
While taking an actual practice exam (or even a real exam; just do these things even better!) . . .
. . . read the instructions carefully. Do exactly what the professor asks you to do. Write in the specific format and style that the professor asks you to. That is, the professor might ask you to write your answer as a judge on a given cases, or as a lawyer to one of the parties. Pay attention to these directions.
. . . read the fact-pattern carefully. Do not just start writing like an idiot. Read over the fact patterns completely before starting anything else. Do not create or assume new facts not mentioned by the professor.
. . . spend time planning. Again, do not just start writing like an idiot even after you've read the exam carefully. Set aside 20 to 30 minutes (even if the exam is 3 hours long) to brainstorm legal issues that may apply. Organize those thoughts and then write your exam.
. . . spot issues and make arguments; don't be concerned with "right" answers. Issue spotting on law school exams is a matter of making judgments as to when a law or case might be applicable. If you can make a "colorable" argument (this is lawyer jargon for "passes the laugh test") that a law applies to a given fact, then you have an issue on your hands.
. . . on any issue you've raised, present arguments on both sides and come to a reasonable conclusion. That is, for most issues you spot, you should make an argument one way, and then present the counter-argument. Usually, issues will not be easy on an exam.Remember: the best students, those who get As, are the ones who see all the issues and all the angles. They are not the ones who just come to the "right" conclusions on issues.
. . . apply the law to facts; really, apply the law to facts. I repeated that on purpose, because I can't say it enough (and imagine Samuel L. Jackson saying this, not me): apply the m************ law to the m************ facts. What the professor cares about most--whether he is conscious of this--is how well you interweave the laws you learned to the facts before you. Never recite laws unless they clearly apply to some facts in the fact pattern. And never analyze facts unless it is in the context of a particular law or case. The IRAC method (Issue/Rule/Application/Conclusion), usually taught for the bar exam, is a way of applying the law to facts. It is not the only way, but it can be helpful.
Compare your practice exam answers with others: Ask some friends or your study group to take the practice exam at roughly the same time, then meet up afterward to compare answers. You will be surprised what other students see that you do not, and vice-versa.
On taking real final exams: The advice I would add about taking a real final exam as opposed to a practice one is: get a good night's sleep before the exam. Do not cram all night. You need to be sharp and creative, and to be both, you need to have energy and be alert.