Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Anatomy of a Law School Exam

Exams are over. They actually finished on December 19th, but one consequence of the intensive preparation and examination period is an aversion to anything even remotely intellectual for a week or two afterward. But now, as my brain cells have emerged from their self-imposed hiatus, I thought it fitting to discuss what drove them into exile.

I’ve always been good with dates and bits of trivia. As a small child, that meant I won my school’s spelling bee yearly. As a slightly older child, that meant I was always picked first for in-class Jeopardy! games. And when I got to high school, that meant I was the annoying guy who pointed out the teacher misstated the date of the fall of the Roman Empire. (I swear I have people skills now.)

As such, when I was first considering applying to law school, I explained to my friends that being a lawyer was all about knowing the obscure bits of laws and even more obscure cases that ruled on those laws. I wasn’t completely wrong, but being a good lawyer involves a lot more than just being good at trivia.

As it turns out, I was closer to describing law school itself than actual lawyerdom. (Note to self: register ActualLawyerDom.com for use when you pass the bar exam, and have to abandon AlmostLegally.com.) The fact is that you have to know a lot of stuff to really succeed in law school. There’s no way around it.

But a law school exam doesn’t just pose questions about which judge wrote which opinion in which case in which year in which jurisdiction wearing which powdered wig. Law school exams typically revolve around the dreaded fact pattern: a long and often silly story about people named Peter Plaintiff and Wendy Witness.

Sidebar: For examples of how silly some fact patterns can be, do check out some law school practice exams. You can search for them on your own on Google, but Law Nerds has a few that are kind of silly. Alternately, if you’re a University of Kentucky law student, your school has made available to the entire internet you some practice exams. (Do note that if you’re violating the terms of use of those exams, you may be a federal criminal!)

At the end of the fact pattern, your professor may ask you a series of questions about specific issues she wants you to address. For instance, on a Civil Procedure exam, the professor may pose questions about where Peter Plaintiff can sue, and what laws should be in effect if he does, and so on.

Most of my professors don’t do this, which means that before you even get to start writing down all those laws that you spent so much time memorizing, you have to do the leg work yourself. The most important skill for a law student taking a test (if not for lawyers in general) is the ability to spot issues that arise from the facts. You get points for recognizing the issues, and it follows that without recognizing the issue, you won’t be able to write your brilliant discussion of the law, so you lose out on even more points, too.

After your magnificent issue spotting has netted you a few points, you get more points for knowing the law that pertains to this issue. As laws aren’t ever really crystal clear, simply stating the law isn’t enough. You get more points for correctly applying the facts to the law: knowing which parts of the law depend on which facts (and which cases help you rule either way) is where you pick up all kinds of points.

So for the trivia nut (that means you, 23 year old me) who thinks that law school is simply a high-stakes game of Trivial Pursuit, you’d do well to practice applying facts to the law and knowing what issues look like. I outperform people who spend all day learning the laws because I’m obsessive about knowing how the laws work. Similarly, I’m outperformed on exams by people who have dissected the laws and are intimately familiar with their history and principles; all these things make for a more pleasant law school exam week.

You know, like how woolen socks make for a more comfortable root canal.