Law school exams are very different from what you’re used to in undergrad. In a way, undergrad exams are more fair. If you study a lot, memorize the material that you’ve covered, and mange to demonstrate that you’ve done all this work on the day of the exam by basically regurgitating the material in a mad dash to fill as many blue books as you can, you’ll do really well.
Law school exams aren’t like that at all. You can put in a ton of work and still end up at the bottom of your class. There’s less of a correlation between hard work and good grades, but law school exams are actually a lot fairer than you’ll hear from most people. Here’s what you can expect.
1. There’s a lot more material to cover
In most of your classes you will have an unreasonable amount of reading to do. Frankly, I’ve very rarely managed to read everything that’s assigned in any particular class. So in the first place, it’s hard to cover everything your professor wants you to know if you just follow the syllabus. In the second place, it’s even harder to summarize everything and organize it inside your notes and your mind in a way that will be helpful to you on exam day.
What’s hard is letting go of all the detail and depth that you’ve uncovered both on your own study time and in class because on exam day you need to know the key points about nearly everything but you must not get bogged down in the details. Having made it through two and a half years of law school, and having TA-ed two classes, I really think that the main issue most hard-working law students have on exam day is that they’ve tried to do too much instead of focusing on key takeaways. For example, for each of the, say, one hundred cases you’ve learned about, you need to have a ten-word takeaway. That’s it. A lot of people will have a page. That’s useless during an exam where you won’t have the time to consult all your notes, even though you can bring them in.
Moreover, you’ll end up missing really basic points you need to know because you’ve gone so deep on some issues that you’ve completely missed the big picture. The big picture is how everything you’ve learned fits together. For example, in your contracts class you will have to apply each unit in the course in a step-by-step manner while you analyze the issues presented. If you don’t know what the steps are, and what the rational order to go through them is, you won’t do very well, even though you studied very hard.
2. There are great resources outside of what’s on the syllabus
While in undergrad you will almost never turn to any source than what your professor has assigned on the syllabus, in law school it is invariably a great idea to do so. First, you should find a reputable outline from a previous student. This will give you a great preview of the class and will help you fill in any gaps in your knowledge. Second, you should almost certainly try to get a commercial supplement on whatever area of law the class is supposed to cover. Usually, there is pretty strong agreement about which source is best. For example, almost everyone uses the Chemerinsky (wow spelled that right on the first go) supplement for their constitutional law class, and almost everyone uses the Glannon E&E for their civil procedure class.
Remember how there’s too much material to cover? Well this is where these outside resources come in to help you lighten the load. Instead of having to discover all the law from reading obtusely written cases your professor has assigned, you can cheat a bit and just look it up in an outline or a supplement.
3. You have to make good arguments
The major difference in actually writing out your exam answer at law school as opposed to in undergrad is that in law school you really have to make good arguments. I’ve “graded” mock exams as part of my TA-ing duties, and I’ve seen that a lot of people will try to just regurgitate the reading instead of answering the questions by arguing both sides of a position. So instead of feeling like I’m being persuaded for and/or against a position (and you should always argue both ways), I feel like I’m reading a summary of the assigned reading. That’s how you get a bottom-of-the-curve grade. It’s simple. You didn’t answer the question. You didn’t demonstrate any analytical ability. Instead, you need to apply what you’ve learned to the question or legal issue in a way a real lawyer would analyzing the problem from an objective point of view, that is, trying to be fair with the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of every argument.
Here, what you have to realize is that law school exams are less about right answers and more about through arguments. It’s not that there are no right answers at all, there certainly are. But more than trying to get to THE right answer, what your professors want you to do is demonstrate that you recognize all the strengths and problems on both sides of every argument.
4. Don’t bag it
The last thing I want everyone to know is that you shouldn’t expect to do as well on your law school exams as you did on your undergrad exams, at least not right away. Law school exams are graded on a curve—which means only about 10% of the class can get an A, and the vast majority will get a B-range grade or worst. So a huge portion of your class will have the nasty experience of being a “worse” student than they were in undergrad, especially if you go to a school where everyone was an A student coming in. If you have a middle-of-the curve or worse experience at law school, the temptation is to just bag it. You’ll hear people say things like, “Law school exams are just random. What’s the point of studying?”
Then you look around the room during your second semester and see pretty much everyone’s either online shopping, playing bubble crush (or whatever), and chatting away on Facebook. Anything but paying attention. While there’s a bit of randomness in law school grading, the randomness doesn’t nearly live up to the law school lore. Instead of bagging it, talk to some upper-year students who you heard killed it and try to figure out what you can do better. If you’re not into asking people for advice, get Getting to Maybe and read it a couple of times over. Getting to Maybe is the law school exam bible—it will teach you what went wrong and how to fix it.
Alright, I better get back to studying.