How To Dissect A Law School Exam Question
Have you ever looked at a law school exam question and completely blanked on how to answer it? Would you like to learn to tackle exam questions more efficiently? No matter how long or short your exam question is, you need to break it up it into manageable parts. In this article, I will discuss six tips and tricks to dissect any law school exam question you might encounter!
How To Dissect A Law School Exam Question
1. Pay attention to the call of the question.
Some fact patterns are long. Some are short. No matter how long your question is, the first thing you must do is decipher the call of the question.
Typically, law school professors will pose a lengthy fact pattern and include a brief question at the end. This could be asking that you write a memo to a supervising attorney, a letter to a client, or a memo to a judge, etc. analyzing the issues. By reading the call of the question first, you will understand your “role” in answering it.
For example, if you’re instructed to write memo as defense counsel, as you read through the fact pattern, you’ll know which facts to distinguish in favor of your client. Having read the call of the question first will help you immediately recognize where you need to “go” with your argument. Ultimately, this helps ensure that you’re efficient as possible while reading through the fact pattern.
2. As you read through the question, highlight or underline key issues.
As you go through your law school exam question, be sure to highlight (Or underline! Or circle!) key facts and issues.
This might seem like an obvious tip, but many students choose not to underline because they find it distracting or because they think they underline too much. As a good rule of thumb, every time you see a specific fact in the fact pattern, ask why it’s there. If the fact doesn’t add anything to your argument or seems irrelevant, chances are, it is! Conversely, if you identify a fact/issue that favors your client—or even an argument you think opposing counsel will make—you should immediately mark it.
By separating important points from regular text, you’ll maximize your time as you flip back and forth between the fact pattern and your exam answer. You’ll be able to immediately identify which facts/issues you want to address and know which ones to include in your answer.
3. If something is in quotes, it’s likely important.
Building on Tip #2, quotation marks typically indicate something of significance and should alert you to address what is said. Markup the exam so you can swiftly identify exactly what is said and who says it. For example, if you think a quote could serve as the basis for opposing counsel’s argument, mark it! As you answer your question, you can include it word-for-word and then directly refute it. Likewise, you don’t want to write a lengthy exam answer based on a quote thinking it favors your client only to discover it doesn’t!
By dissecting out quotes that might (or might not) favor your side, you’ll be able to quickly refer to them and include them in your answer. Using direct quotes helps clearly demonstrate to your professor that you have adequate support for your arguments. In turn, this should help you pick up as many points as possible.
4. Draw a line in the text where issues deviate.
If you spot multiple issues in a law school exam question, try to identify them and mark where they diverge from one another.
Imagine you’re taking a Torts exam and you see evidence of both negligence and battery (an intentional tort) in the same paragraph. Draw a line between the relevant facts and write “Negligence” and “Battery” next to their respective set of facts. Doing this will help you see where your “negligence facts” end and your “intentional tort facts” begin.
Moreover, as you look back at the marks you’ve made, you’ll see where to break up each section of your exam answer. Everywhere you see a different issue noted, begin a new paragraph/section for that issue in your answer.
5. Look out for similar situations as those discussed in class.
I cannot count the number of times I took a law school exam and thought, “Hey! I’ve seen similar facts before. This is just like a case from the casebook!” If this happens to you, use that sense of déjà vu to your advantage. It’s likely a signal from your professor that he wants you to talk about similar issues.
Often, professors will pull fact patterns from cases discussed in the casebook or from lecture. Be on the lookout for factual exam situations similar to those you learned about in class. When you write your answer, part of the work will already have been done for you! You read the case. You know what the pertinent issue was and how it was analyzed by the judge. All that’s left to do is analyze the issue in front of you using the prior case as a guide.
*Mini tip* If you recognize a specific set of facts to be on point with a case discussed in lecture, cite to it directly in your analysis. Directly citing binding or persuasive precedent on a law school exam question shows that you know what you’re talking about! Professors usually don’t penalize you for not citing to a specific case. However, they might give one or two extra points if you cite to a relevant case!
6. Once you have completed Tips #1-#5, look at the notes you’ve made and outline your answer!
Having clearly demarcated each piece of information to include in your answer, you’re ready to start writing! You’ll have identified the position you need to take. You’ll have identified the key issues, pertinent facts, and/or potential opposing arguments. Moreover, you’ll have marked where you need to separate the portions or your answer or any precedent you should include.
Combining each of these elements will enable you to craft an exceedingly persuasive, well-argued, and well-supported answer!
Overall, these tips will help you break down any law school exam question into manageable pieces. Following them will ensure you fully, efficiently, and successfully answer the exam question!
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