Five Mistakes to Avoid On Law School Exams

Mistake # 1 – Inadequate Preparation

In order to prepare effectively for a legal exam, you must both (1) learn the law and (2) learn how to use it. Many students concentrate solely on the first element of this formula, and they cram and memorize legal rules ad nauseam. Unfortunately, when they're faced with a complex fact pattern on an exam, it takes them much too long to write a response because they're applying the law to facts for the first time.

You can not afford to make this common blunder. Would you read a book about aviation and then, without ever practicing, get behind the throttle of a plane for the first time and try to fly it? Of course not. You would not risk your life like that, so why risk your law school career? Each and every legal exam you ever take will be like flying for the first time. If you put in your "flight time" and practice, you'll soar. If not, you'll crash and burn.

There are three important components to successful preparation for law school exams: (1) preparation thorough, accurate outlines and checklists, (2) participating in an effective study group, and (3) taking numerous practice exams and discussing them with your study partners. You probably never wrote a course outline in college, and you probably rarely – if ever – studied with a study group or took practice exams. In law school, if you really want to maximize your grades, you must do these things for every course you take.

Mistake # 2 – Overwriting and Oversimplifying

There's a delicious balance between saying too much about something on an exam and saying too little. When confronted with a hypothetical exam (ie, a complex fact pattern), many law students have difficulty finding this balance.

Overwriting

"Overwriting" is spending an inappropriate, disproportionate amount of time raising an issue. Many law students overwrite issues out of nervousness, poor planning, or failure to spot other relevant issues. Professors allocate only a certain number of points to each issue on an exam. Once you've said everything relevant about a particular issue, everything else you say is by definition irrelevant and then will earn no points.

Oversimplifying

"Oversimplifying" means focusing only on what you perceive as the most important or prominent issues, leaving out issues you consider trivial or immaterial. Unfortunately, a professor grading an oversimplified exam answer does not see the thought process that went into the distillation of big issues and discarding of small issues; she perceives only that the student has failed to discuss certain issues.

For example, assume you're told in a torts hypothetical that A, B and C were walking along when D threatened them with a gun, causing A to faint. Most students would see that A could recover from D under an assault theory. However, B and C also have assault actions. These actions are not as important or prominent as A's (because A suffered the worst injury), yet they're clearly worthy of discussion in an exam.

How can you avoid overwriting and oversimplifying? By spotting every issue in a hypothetical; by including each issue in a rapid but thorough outline of your answer before you begin writing it; by identifying and prioritizing major issues in your outline; and by raising minor issues only summarily.

Mistake # 3 – Failing to Discuss Both Sides of Every Issue

Law students often make the mistake of trying to "solve" a complex fact pattern. They consider the parties' claims, figure out who should win, and then tell the grader why concisely. This sounds like a pretty good approach, right? Wrong.

You can not just "solve" a complex legal problem. Instead, you've got to analyze it thoroughly. Maybe your analysis will render a solution, maybe it will not. But on a legal exam, you get most of your points for analysis. If you cut your analysis short, you cut your points short.

Therefore, in order to maximize your scores on exams, you must advance every plausible argument that can be made on both sides of any debatable issue. With a little creativity, you can usually derive at least two different results by applying the same legal rule to the same set of facts. In fact, this is why cases get litigated – arguments can typically be advanced in favor of different legal results from the same set of facts.

Mistake # 4 – Time Problems

Most law school exams are designed to put you under heavy time pressure. As you can imagine, a certain time constraint separates those who are well-prepared and organized from those who are at best adequately-prepared and organized.

There are three important ways to ensure that you'll finish a hypothetical-format exam within the allotted time. First, you must be familiar with the legal rules you'll have to apply and with how to apply them. Many students waste precious exam time thinking about how each element of a rule applies to the facts. If you have applied that rule many times on practice exams, applying it on the real exam will be second-nature and you'll spend much less time thinking about how to do it.

Second, you must budget your time methodically, and stay within budget for each element of each question. For example, assume you are taking a four-hour exam maintaining two equal-weight questions. Naturally, you should spend no more than two hours on each question. Despite the obvious nature of this advice, many students, either consciously or unconsciously, allocate time in a lopsided manner between equal weight questions. Such misallocation is disastrous for the question that gets allocated the smaller amount of time. Moreover, you must allocate at least one-fourth of the time on each question (ie, 30 minutes) to preparing an outline of your response to that question.

Third, you must avoid "filler" language in your answer. "Clearing your throat" while writing, or using a sentence to introduce an issue, are techniques that are simply applicable on a legal exam. Each unnecessary sentence (which merits no points) takes as much time to write as a worth sentence (which merits a point or two).

Mistake # 5 – Failing to Spot Every Issue

You've got to spot an issue in order to get points for discussing it. For many students, failing to spot issues is the main reason for poor exam grades. A number of techniques discussed below will help you spot every issue. Most importantly, using a checklist and highlighting your answer are key.