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What Makes a Good Law School Exam Answer? Law Profs Weigh In - (

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  • What Makes a Good Law School Exam Answer? Law Profs Weigh In - (

    One-Ls, we’re feeling for you. First-semester exams are looming, and you’re stressed. You know that the stakes are really pretty high. A mediocre performance won’t relegate you to a life of penury and misery, but it will keep you from joining — at least initially — that gilded echelon of the profession.

    With nothing less than a slate of A’s (or something close to that), you throw away any chance you ever had of clerking for the Supreme Court or high-profile federal appellate judge. You will probably not become a law-school professor. You will not make law review and you will probably not get a job at Cravath. Even worse, in the short term, is that come January, you’ll find out that the dude who slept through Contracts or the woman who completely flubbed it every time she was called on in Civil Procedure or, worst of all, the guy who wore a freakin’ tie to your 8:30 a.m. Torts class, absolutely killed it. Each got A’s and A-pluses to your B’s and B-pluses. Those people will suddenly walk with a slightly different air, as if they’re better than you. And you’ll have to live with this new reality for the next 2+ years.

    With all this in mind, we decided to try to give you a hand, One-Ls. We checked in with a handful of professors around the country and asked them to complete the following sentence: “A good law exam answer is _______.”

    Of course, none of these responses will, alone, unlock the key to success. And an A exam to one might be a B plus to someone else. But taken collectively, they just might shed some light on what the Great Professoriate is looking for. So here goes.

    Heather Gerken, Yale: A good law exam answer is . . . evaluative. Too often, students walk through each answer as if all arguments are created equal. They don’t tell me which arguments are strong and which are weak, which facts matter and which don’t, which cases provide strong support for their claims and which ones are distinguishable. And they throw everything into the answer rather than think hard about what belongs and what doesn’t. Good lawyers don’t just know the substantive law; they also have good legal judgment. The mistake students make is not to exercise their own legal judgment in answering a question.

    Richard Friedman, Michigan: A good law exam answer . . . answers the question. Banal as that sounds, many students take the question as an excuse to write a canned answer on some area in which they’ve learned the black-letter law. I tell my students, “Imagine you’re riding down an elevator with a boss who knows the law and who has told you the facts but wants your help in advising the client. Don’t repeat the facts to him. Don’t tell him the law. Apply the law to the facts.”

    Eric Chiappinelli, Creighton: A good law exam answer . . . is one that does more than tells me what the law is (more or less well) and applies the law to the facts (more or less well) and then stops. The other 90 anonymous answers will do that. You should do two additional things: Tell me up front what the question really turns on – a choice between two applicable rules? Deciding what a particular word or phrase should mean? Then, at the end, give me your opinion of whether the result is good or fair or just. Cutting to the heart of a question immediately and expressing a value judgment about the result are what separate the A’s from the C’s.

    Paul Secunda: Marquette: A good law exam answer . . . gets to maybe. By that I mean that too many law students have an undergraduate mentality and seek to figure out the one “right” answer for the question. The point of the law school exam is not necessarily to test for right and wrong answers, but to see whether the student is utilizing critical reasoning skills to understand all the possible issues that the question presents. The more you arrive at a “maybe” in your law exam, the more likely you are seeing all the sides of the question in your answer and will then receive the most exam points.”

    Adam Winkler, UCLA: A good law exam answer . . . is rigorous and deep. By rigorous, I mean it references every applicable standard, test, and burden; analyzes every appropriate “branch” in the decision tree; and follows a sound logical structure. By deep, I mean it argues — not just concludes — how the legal rules apply to the facts; analogizes and distinguishes the most relevant cases; and addresses the best counterarguments. There is no “right” answer. It’s all about the argument.

    Tim Wu, Columbia: A good law exam answer . . . is honest and perceptive. Many law students, when answering exam questions, seem to lose their humanity. They become a sort of law robot, flooding you with pages of 4 factor tests, canned nonsense, and ridiculous results. (Unfortunately, some judicial opinions read that way too.) The good students are more honest in their responses: they hone in on what is actually hard about the problem, and let their instincts drive the answer, with doctrine as their instrument. The very best law students are able to turn the problem around in their mind, almost like a computer rotating a complex shape, and explain how slightly different angles of view create different doctrinal consequences.

    Pamela Karlan, Stanford: A good law exam answer . . . is like a poem. Every word is there for a reason. It makes creative arguments within a conventional form. It avoids needless sentimentality but it reflects an author who thinks and cares. I learn something from reading it. And it ends with something other than the word “Time . . . . ”

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