Law school exams are a daunting
prospect, they are your only opportunity to demonstrate
everything you have learned in your law school class. Your grade
in the course is based entirely on your performance on this one
law school exam. Very few law school professors give any
feedback throughout the semester. So, you will have little
information on how the professor expects for you to respond to
their law school exam questions. Given these realities, you
wouldn’t be a normal person if you weren’t a little scared about
having this three or four hour law school exam determine your
grade when you have worked so hard all semester. But, with a
little time and practice, you can be fully prepared to do a
Doing well on a law school exam requires more than just cramming
information into your head like you did before law school.
Because law school exams are different than undergraduate exams
(and even bar exams), you need to have an exam strategy that
both prepares you for the exam and serves as a guide during it.
If you would like more information about exam preparation, be
sure to download the
Free 1L Law Student Guide—Being Ready From Day One.
Before we get too far into these strategies, however, it is
worth noting that not all law school professors are the same. If
your professor gives you any advice or instructions about how to
prepare for or take her exam, follow it over any strategies that
you might read here.
Here is a great primer for those of you who have never taken a
law school exam:
Once you have made your outline, review your class notes again.
Look for confusing points and try to see what you might have
missed. At this point in the semester, you should have a better
idea of the structure to the law school class. Try to find new
significance and meaning in your class notes. Identify the areas
that the professor spent the most class time on—it will feature
prominently in the law school exam. Law school professors have
the quirky habit of testing what they taught, so be familiar
with what went on in class.
Review old law school exams. It is vital that you get any
available copies of your professor’s previous exams. Usually,
they are on file at the law library. If there are no exams for
the course that you are taking, review the professor’s other
exams anyway. You will be able to pick up her style.
Additionally, pull other law school exam questions on your law
school class subject.
Click here, for a listing of openly
available law exam questions. For law school exam questions that
don’t have model answers attached, it is helpful to have a study
group. Each student individually reviews and outlines the
question and then the group meets afterward to discuss. Another
great source for review is the discussion questions you will
find in your casebook. If you think it will help you, devote
some time to doing a full, timed, practice exam.
It’s also important to get whatever law school exam information
you can get from your professor. Professors often tell the law
students about what to expect on their exams. You should know
whether the exam will be open book or closed book. Also try to
get a good idea of what the professor’s rules will be for the
exam. And, if possible, find out how many questions there are
and how much time will be suggested for each question.
Make sure to keep all of your law school exams in mind, and
budget your time accordingly. You should devote the same amount
of time and energy in studying for an open book law school exam,
as you would a closed book exam. Open book exams tend to be more
difficult and time consuming than closed book exams. You will
not have much time to spend with your notes. A good rule of
thumb is to divide your available time by the number of credits
available in each course. Spend more time studying for the four
hour law exam than the three—it’s worth more.
Do not spend the night before the law school exam cramming. You
will be better served by being well rested.
Taking the Law School Exam
The first thing to remember is that you should expect the law school exam to cover almost all of the topics covered in the course.
It is useful to have a checklist (memorized if needed) of the topics you expect to see on the exam, and try to find them in the law school exam problems.
Begin by carefully reading the law school exam instructions and
identifying how long you have for each question on the exam. If
there are no allocations given, assume that each law school exam
question is worth an equal amount of points and, therefore,
time. If the questions are broken down by percentage of points,
allocate your time the same way. Make sure to strictly adhere to
the time allocation, spending 1 ½ hours on a 1 hour question is
like cheating and the grader will not reward you for it.
Next, begin reading the law school exam problem. A good rule of
thumb is to skip to the end and read the actual question first.
Then, move back to the beginning of the fact pattern and read it
quickly one time. Now, re-read the law school exam problem once
more, circling major facts and writing notes on the exam when
helpful. Rearrange the issues and facts that you have found in
order to make the best organized answer, and then write. A
simple topic outline is useful for this.
You should spend approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of your available time
reading the law school exam problem and outlining your answer.
Do not be distracted by the students around you who begin
writing almost immediately. A concise, well-organized essay will
Once you have decided what you will discuss, and how it will be
organized, you can begin writing. Most professors appreciate the
IRAC formula that you are by now intimately familiar with. If
you are writing your law school exam by hand, bring five more
blue books than you think you will need. Write legibly, on one
side of the page, and skip lines. Number your blue books. Use
headings and short paragraphs. It is best to limit your
sentences to one idea or point. Do not forget that a law school
exam question requires a formal answer—instant messaging
The analysis portion of your exam answer is what will determine
your grade. Everyone in the class should be able to identify the
major issues and spew out the correct rule of law. The student
who picks up the subtlety in the exam question, and argues both
sides of the issue, will get the better grade. Remember to
explain your reasoning and include the facts in your answer. If
the exam question is similar to a case that you discussed in
class, point it out. You do not need to memorize the case name.
Identify the case by the facts and rules that came from it.
Remember to answer the question that was asked. Don’t be tempted
to add additional information so that you can write about
everything you have learned. Understand that the law school exam
will not test everything you know about the course. Do not
answer questions that are not asked or address issues not
present in the problem. Do not discuss issues you see from other
courses in the problem. It’s great that you can notice a Torts
issue in your Property exam, but your professor will not give
you any points for doing it. If you feel that you need to assume
a fact when answering the question, be sure to include the fact
that you are making this assumption in your answer. But, be
careful. Generally, all the facts that you will need are already
written into the law school exam problem.
If you are reaching the end of your time allocation for a
question, but still have more writing to do, outline the
remainder of your answer in as much detail as possible, and move
on. If you have available time later, you can come back to clean
it up. While you probably will not get full credit for the
answer, your outline is likely to help your score more than
leaving the rest of the law school exam question blank.
Special Law School Exam Questions:
If you have studied and outlined appropriately before the law
school exam, you will be adequately prepared if the professor
chooses to include a policy-type question. You will have a good
idea of how likely this is, because you will have reviewed the
professor’s previous law school exams. In answering these
questions, it is helpful to remember that a policy question is
like in issue spotter in that you are choosing between two (or
more) competing options. If the professor asks you to discuss
whether the “mailbox rule” for acceptance should be retained,
your job is to not only take a position and argue for it, but to
compare it with whatever the alternative might be. Policy
questions cannot work in a vacuum. Like other legal issues,
there will be at least two sides.
The key to this type of question is to use the amount of time
that you are given, and to focus on the question. Extreme
brevity is the most common mistake on this type of law school
exam question. If the professor gives you 20 minutes to discuss
the common law elements of burglary (the breaking and entering
into the house of another in the night time, with intent to
commit a felony therein), you should do more than just list the
elements. You should explain the nuances of the different
elements with examples. Even though this is a short answer
question, you should still spend up to half of the available
time thinking and outlining your answer.
Law school exams that employ multiple choice questions are going
to be different than other multiple choice question exams you
have taken. On these types of questions, the most important
thing is to read the question carefully. For multiple choice
questions, spend time eliminating answers that you know are
Take Home Law School Exams
Some law school exams are in the take home format, where the
professor gives you 24-48 hours to complete the exam outside of
class. These exams are the exception to the “use the time given”
rule. They should be treated as a short research paper. The
professor is not looking for a rambling, incoherent, desperate
course synopsis composed through the night. Instead, remember
that length is not as important as the depth of the analysis and
the degree of organization. Spend 3-4 hours preparing an outline
of the topic of the exam, and from there an outline of your
answer. Then, write a well-organized, cogent discussion. Don’t
let the fact that you have a take-home exam in the class keep
you from studying prior to the exam. If you wait until you have
the exam, you will not be able to consult others about questions
you may have about the material.