(Last updated: 28 January 2009 )
Advice on preparing for and writing the exam
Prior years' exams
General information. The examination in this course will be in 8-hour take-home format; you may write the exam at home, at the library, or in a classroom provided by the law school. For further details on exam logistics, see the official CLS Fall 2008 exam schedule.
The exam will be completely open-book, and will consist of two essay questions, weighted equally. One question will be a traditional issue-spotter question, and the other will be more planning- or policy-oriented. You will be limited to a maximum number of words per question.
Advice on preparing for and writing the exam.
Preparing for the exam. Remember first of all that all of you are already good at taking exams, else you would not have made it this far in your career. While there are differences between law school exams and the exams you are accustomed to taking, the similarities are more important; thus, it would probably be a bad idea to drastically change your study habits at this point. Still it is worth paying attention to the differences, in order to make your preparations most effective.
The main skill being tested on the exam is your ability to work with hypothetical legal problems --- not your ability to display or reproduce all the information you've learned over the semester. Thus one of your goals in reviewing the course material should be to find some way to organize it so that you can retrieve in timely fashion and apply it thoughtfully. Your review should include three bodies of material: (1) legal doctrine, (2) the range of facts that influence when legal doctrines are invoked and how they are applied, and (3) the various policy and planning problems we've discussed throughout the course, such as incentives, negotiation, opportunism, information exchange, risk allocation, and the like. Since your casebook and most commercial outlines are organized around (1), it will take more work on your own part to prepare (2) and (3).
Some students have asked about the best method of outlining. Subject to the above, there is none. Do what works best for you, and this may include commercial outlines or not preparing a conventional outline at all. But, keeping in mind the skills being tested, your preparation shouldn't stop at reviewing your notes and and memorizing their contents; you also will want to practice working through some problems. Thus after your reviewing is finished, you should look at and try to work though some old exam questions. Or alternatively, you can choose a case from the early part of the book that we focused on for some limited purpose, and work it through again in light of the full semester's material. In this regard, working in groups is probably more useful than working alone.
Additionally, there is no particular need to spend time memorizing cases. The cases were useful in learning legal principles and practicing your analytic skills, and you may find it useful to refer to a case as a way of making a point concisely (e.g., the rule of Hadley v. Baxendale), but this is not necessary and you can get a top grade in my class without citing a single case. (This is in contrast to the UCC, where the statutory text is controlling and you need to cite it accurately when relevant.)
Writing the exam. The reason that I use the take-home format is that it provides a better and more realistic test of what you have learned in the course. Specifically, it allows me to give you more detailed fact patterns than would be reasonable to expect you to read in an in-class setting. Since a major theme of this course is that good lawyering requires a close and detailed analysis of the facts, I want to give you a chance to display this skill on your exam. Additionally, the extra time gives you a chance to think about the problem and write a more coherent answer.
When you come to write your exam, keep foremost in mind that you are writing an essay. This essay will be shorter and more stylized than the typical term paper, but still it should have a thesis, a plan of organization, and a series of arguments that build up to a conclusion. In this regard:
- You should spend a significant amount of time organizing your answer. Do not start writing until you have mapped out how your argument will proceed.
- Be sure to read the question carefully, consider the perspective it requests you to take, and answer it as posed. If you feel the question lacks important information, you should say so, and indicate how your answer would depend on such information. Part of what you are being tested for is the ability to realize when you need to need to investigate the facts further.
- If you think the answer is clear-cut or that the analysis can only come out one way, think again. Some of the sub-issues will cut clearly in favor of one party or another, but it is unlikely that all will. You should be sure to consider possible counter-arguments, and fallback arguments in case your main argument fails.
- Prioritize your issues. There will not be enough time or space to discuss every possible argument or issue, and part of what the exam tests for is your ability to judge which issues are most important and which are less so. You are better off writing a coherent answer than trying to jam in every last point.
- Explain your logic. Do not assume that a conclusion is obvious.
- Make use of the facts you are given. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously remarked, general propositions do not decide concrete cases; and part of the point of the exam is for you to exercise and articulate your situation sense..
The quality of an exam answer is a function of its coverage of relevant issues, clarity of expression and organization, sophistication in the use of facts, explanation and justification of its conclusions, flexibility and creativity in spotting counter-arguments and alternate interpretations, and judgment in distinguishing major from minor and stronger from weaker points. To see what these elements consist of in practice, you should look at some top student answers to old exams, available below. For what it is worth, I base 75-80% of the exam raw score on a checklist system that takes account of issue coverage and factual and logical detail, and 20-25% on my overall reaction to the exam as a whole. [These two components, by the way, tend to be substantially though less than fully correlated.] In addition, when scoring an exam I give little to no credit for irrelevant material, even if it is legally accurate.
What not to do. In my experience, here are some things that are not elements of a good answer, or that detract from your writing a good answer. Most commonly, when a student underperforms on one of my exams, it is for one of these reasons.
- Excessive citation of cases. As indicated above, you do not need to cite cases at all, though you may find doing so to be a useful and concise way of making a point.
- Restating the facts, without integrating them into a legal analysis. This is just a waste of space, even if you plan on referring back to them later in your answer. Skip the recap and just refer back to the exam question.
- Lecturing on doctrine in the abstract, similarly, gets you little credit and tends to waste space and time. When discussing doctrine, you should always connect it to the fact situation in an integrated manner, as the top student answers do.
- Reproducing a prepared checklist of issues. Preparing a checklist and having it at your fingertips is a good way to remind you not to forget anything (e.g., there are always a few students who forget to address remedies, which loses them significant credit.) But you should not write your entire checklist into your answer. For instance, if the Statute of Frauds is not implicated on a particular question, do not spend time on it.
- Analysis not grounded in a legal perspective. On planning or transactional questions, I do want you to integrate legal and practical perspectives, but you shouldn't fill your answer with analysis that you could have performed before law school. You should ground your answers in a legal framework and when you discuss transactional alternatives, be sure to discuss their legal as well as their practical effects.
Finally, though you know this already, remember to keep some perspective on the role of exams in legal education. First, the exam is only a sample, taken on a given day and under variable conditions, of what you have learned and what you can do. You've spent many days on your legal studies and this is only one of them. Furthermore, this process continues well after law school; when you will have 50 to 60 years of good and useful work ahead of you as a practicing attorney. Second, exam taking is a skill like any other, people get better at it over time. You will take on the order of 30 exams while you are in law school; you get other chances after this one, and things even out. Third and most importantly, based on a semester of discussions with you, I regard everyone in the class as talented, intelligent and capable, and nothing that happens on a single day can change my view in that regard. All of you have the potential to be first-rate lawyers, and to do first-rate legal work. Don't forget why you came to law school. It wasn't to take exams, but to learn what you need to know to do the work you want to do, and in that regard you are well on your way.
Prior years' exams. Here are copies of previous years' exams for this course, so you can get a sense of the sort of problems you are training yourselves to be able to solve. At this point, however, the problems are beyond your competence and you should not waste any time or energy trying to work on them; you should save that for the end of the semester. I will instead supply shorter problems over the course of the semester for those who are interested in a mid-semester review. In the last week of the term I will post copies of the top student answers to each question and, for the more recent exams, feedback memos that sketch out my view of a good answer.
Note also that prior to 1996, I taught Contracts as a 5- or 6-hour course. Thus the exams for these semesters cover some doctrinal material that we did not cover in this class, and for which you will not be held responsible.
Top student answers Top student answers Top student answers