Law School Exam Strategies

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 wonderful job.

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:

The Basics of Law School Exam Preparation

Preparing for a Law School Exam

Your law school exam preparation begins with your law school course outline. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss your outline, you should have an outline—that you have made—as you begin your law school exam preparation. Click here, for more information on making your law school class outline.

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 be rewarded.

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 abbreviations and

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:

Policy Question

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.

Short Answer

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.

Multiple Choice/True-False

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 incorrect.

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.

If you would like more information about law school exam preparation, be sure to download the Free 1L Law Student Guide—Being Ready From Day One. Here is a great law school exam video that identifies some mistakes to avoid:


Avoid these Law School Exam Mistakes: