So how do I take a law school exam?
I take the opportunity here to go truly in-depth in regards to how to best approach law school exams. This is probably the question most frequently asked by law students, and it is something that deserves a full and fair response.
There really is a method of approaching law school exams that students can learn. It just takes understanding and practice.
Just a heads up that this detailed post could take up to 30 minutes to read. It is intended as a reference guide for your exam preparation! Feel free to browse, save the link, return later, and reach out with any questions.
First of all: You’re not alone in being confused.
It goes without saying: The law school exam and the process of preparing for it is foreboding and formidable. (This is among any other similar adjectives which can be used to describe it, the most common of which is just: AWFUL).
It’s going to take some time to get used to this knew way of thinking about an exam. And that is only natural! But, with time and by learning the right approach upfront, you can master it.
Here’s an overview of what I will discuss.
- Law School Exams Require Their Own Unique Approach that You Never Have Had to Use Before
- To IRAC or Not To IRAC: That Is The First Question
- The Component Parts of IRAC Are Important to Understand and To Use as A Guide
- Let’s Consider a Completely Hypothetical Exam Situation: A Movie in Lalaland
- Hypothetical Public Video Shoot Exam Prompt
- The Hypothetical Cases from this Hypothetical Class
- Start With An Outline of All of the Issues You Can Think Of
- Think of the Decision in Each Case Regarding the Issue and Start Drawing General Inferences
- Think About How the Facts Here Differ (or Don’t) From the Case that the Rule was Drawn From and Talk About the Nuances
- Conclude as to What the Answer Could be and Move on Quickly
- Remember: Show Your Thinking Because That’s What Matters
The law school exam can seem like the end-all be-all of most student’s law school experience, particularly in the earliest years. The entire semester seems to revolve around this exam, and it does for good reason. The curve can be harsh, and students are often left competing for top marks and then further for certain jobs.
Law School Exams Require Their Own Unique Approach that You Never Have Had to Use Before
Students almost always feel ill-equipped to begin to write answers in an acceptable format for their law school exams. Students are almost never familiar with the type of hypothetical-driven, issue-spotting, open-ended essay based exam that law professors inevitably will deliver to them come exam day.
But it is very important that a student have an upfront understanding of the sort of response expected with these exams.
Often, this sort of understanding comes through the process of writing exams, and well as reviewing these exams against model answers. Practice really does make perfect. Law school exams are structured in a unique and unexpected way, and the type of response demanded follows from this exact sort of atypical structure.
Still, practice is more effective where a student has some sort of familiarity going in. The students’ efforts will be more effective where they understand how to write an exam response first.
There are different theories as to how best to approach the responses to this type of exams. Many of these theories related to the classic IRAC format.
To IRAC or Not To IRAC: That Is The First Question
It’s simple: Use IRAC when necessary, but a student can write a more powerful response than what this structure contains in its strictest form.
Students are most often told than not that they should approach answering their law school exams with a basic structure of: Issue, Rule, Application, and then Conclusion. This structure is then further emphasized when a student is preparing to write their Bar exam, which is pretty much an amalgamation across subjects of the most common type of law school exams.
Here’s what I think: A student cannot go wrong with an IRAC structure as long as they understand it and of course understand the points of law being analyzed.
For pass/fail type exams over an incredible range of subjects like the Bar exam, the IRAC structure is perfectly fitting. And, because I did mention that the typical law school exam is similar to a one-subject Bar exam, IRAC can be useful on a law school exam as well.
I believe the focus on IRAC can obscure the sort of legal reasoning that a student is expected to show on a law school exam.
Please allow me to put it this way: If a student consistently applies IRAC in the right way across their law school exam, they are not going to fail. In fact, depending on the nature of the curve for that particular exam, they could actually excel.
But a student consistently applying only a strict IRAC structure in the most competitive settings or else with a uniquely structured law school exam will not demonstrate their abilities as powerfully as possible.
I believe the focus on IRAC can obscure the sort of legal reasoning that a student is expected to show on a law school exam. Professors are looking for nuance, and this nuance can fit into some structure. But, where that structure is following the headings: I, R, A, and C, I believe it can limit a student’s approach to providing the most powerful exam response.
The Component Parts of IRAC Are Important to Understand and To Use as A Guide
IRAC is useful because it does identify the basic components that need to be touched upon in any law school exam response.
IRAC is only limiting in the way that a response may not neatly fit into separate considerations of a single issue, hard-and-fast rules, straightforward application, and a final conclusion. But still, these components form a basic framework for understanding what is required of a law school exam response.
It is important to identify the legal issues that are relevant to any essay prompt, review all of the rules relevant to this issue, consider the ways in which these rules apply given the facts, and to conclude in some way, whether by hedging or not. Every legal controversy is going to proceed to be resolved in this way with these parts.
IRAC is a good start. But Law professors love to consider the most sticky areas
My approach in this guide is simply to indicate that the most powerful exam responses will understand this basic structure and elaborate upon it by engaging in a nuanced analysis that considers more in-depth the nuances and inferences that surround the apparent rules from the cases considered during the semester.
IRAC is a good start. But Law professors love to consider the most sticky areas, and an IRAC structure may not exactly allow for the response that they will find most ideal.
Let’s Consider a Completely Hypothetical Exam Situation: A Movie in Lalaland
I find it incredibly instructive to start from a point of pure fantasy when explaining how best to approach law school exams. In this way, students are most able to see the structure to the reasoning and how best to approach the response, rather than being caught up in the substance of the underlying law.
For this reason, I start here with a purely and entirely fictional hypothetical based on an imaginary public video shoot taking place in the micro-state of Lalaland for a big budget Xollywood movie, subject to its own unique laws regarding the film industry and its activities.
Hypothetical Public Video Shoot Exam Prompt
Consider the following as being the first essay when a student opens their final exam for a course on the Law of Filmmaking. Consider that only the laws of Lalaland apply for this exam. This is a fully closed book exam (I know… Scary!).
The Hypothetical Cases from this Hypothetical Class
A student would be overwhelmed (naturally) by this prompt. With all these facts and with no outline, they would feel lost.
It would do them well to take a deep breath and try to read through all of the hypothetical cases that you would have read and reviewed during the semester.
Now go back and read the prompt again!
Start With An Outline of All of the Issues You Can Think Of
The first thing that a student should do, once they have read through this prompt in full not only once but twice is begin to outline all of the potential legal issues that could be involved. With this outline, the student can begin to structure their exam response.
For the above hypothetical and given the cases highlighted above, a student should be thinking:
- Was there bystander publicity rights involved?
- Did a performer decide not to fulfill their contract?
- Was there potential liability from a stunt gone wrong?
After all, these are the major themes of the above cases, and the student’s outline would almost certainly be organized this way. Regardless, the answer is: Yes, yes, and yes. These should be the primary headings on an outline discussing the legal rights involved.
Your outline would be simple and could look like this (among a million other formulations)…
It may not seem like much, but this is an incredible start. A student can start to fill in their response from here. This sort of outline gives the student the necessary hook to start thinking: “Hmm, so what are any issues with X, Y, and Z in this situation?”
From here, a student would at least begin to discuss under each of these headings the particular legal considerations that would go into resolving the legal rights involved in each of these issues.
Think of the Decision in Each Case Regarding the Issue and Start Drawing General Inferences
For this exam, the outline, along with a rough application of the reasoning, or “rule,” from each of the cases would look like the following…
After putting together an outline, a student should move quickly to considering how the reasoning from each of the different cases discussing this issue might apply in the hypothetical case at issue.
The student likely has pulled out some general reasoning that the student has identified as driving the court’s decision in each case. And the student can state this reasoning while applying it to the hypothetical.
This stage is referred to in the IRAC format as the “rule” and “application” component. It is relatively straightforward, and it is how a student demonstrates that they have correctly identified an issue, understood a court’s reasoning in a certain case, and applied it to the facts in front of them.
The above response already is very strong, and a student would be well suited to submit this response (however limited by the purposes of this imaginary exercise) as is, along with a brief conclusion.
In fact, for the purposes of the Bar exam (again, with the addition of a conclusion of course), this type of quick statement of the rule and its application would be sufficient.
At the same time, the student could go even a bit further by looking at the facts from the above cases and comparing them in some way to the facts from the hypothetical in the exam prompt. It is by working with these factual inferences that a student may be able to set their analysis apart from that of others.
Think About How the Facts Here Differ (or Don’t) From the Case that the Rule was Drawn From, and Talk About the Nuances
This is what a rough version of this type of additional analysis could look like in addition…
Students should continue with their responses even past the point of applying the court’s reasoning from each case in a straightforward way. While this is a recipe for a passable response, a student should also look for an opportunity to engage with nuanced factual analysis where possible as well.
A student can attempt to compare the important facts of the case from which they are relying on the court’s reasoning and discuss how the facts of the hypothetical may or may not change how that reasoning is applied and thus the result.
(Though, this may not be possible in all circumstances and especially under exam conditions, but it is worth considering regardless. I must note that: In certain cut and dry circumstances, it is completely acceptable to stop the analysis before this point, where the case is highlighting a hard-and-fast rule.)
Students following too closely to the IRAC format often neglect engaging in this additional step. But I believe, as stated previously, that this portion of the exam response is what separates the strongest responses from the strong but not eye-catching responses of others.
With all of this, a student can rest assured that, even where their knowledge of the law might be limited in certain areas (or entirely made up, as is the case here), their analysis is demonstrated in an incredibly strong way.
Yes, this is a lot of analysis, but this is what the full hour or more that a student will spend writing their response will be devoted to!
At this point, a conclusion can be written quickly and generally without too much importance placed upon it, including where it is somewhat inconclusive.
Conclude as to What the Answer Could be and Move on Quickly
This is an example for each of the major issues that I would roughly write for the above exam…
(I also follow each conclusion with a one sentence recommendation because I always found it useful and natural in both practice and in law school to include some statements at the end, and I do think that professors like to see this sort of thinking!)
Believe it or not; unlike most exam situations, the conclusion is generally the least important part of the whole law school exam response.
In fact, where the analysis is strong enough on its own, the conclusion can be short and simple; this will actually serve to only benefit the student because time is always of the essence.
Students tend to believe that they have to come to one solid conclusion or else that they have to engage in some prolonged conclusion hedging in many directions. Neither is necessary. A student should simply summarize their analysis. Nothing more is necessary before moving on to the next issue.
The conclusion truly is secondary to the issue identification and the bulk of the analysis, but students might find it useful to include some sort of conclusory statement for structural or rhetorical purposes.
The reasoning really is more important than the conclusion. This is worth repeating.
Remember: Show Your Thinking Because That’s What Matters
In the end, the most important piece of advice that a student can take away from this whole guide is: Show your thinking, and stretch the inferences that you are drawing from cases to get at the edges of the issues discussed.
Do this showing of your work by comparing the facts of the hypothetical to how the court came to its decision on the facts in the other cases, and your professors will be very impressed.
Strong case briefs organized into a tight outline can be incredibly helpful when it comes down to the day of and putting this all into practice. And remember: there is no substitute for a thorough exploration of the course material, doing practice problems, and repeated review of practice exams!