“….Then Dave saw Paul put his hand in his coat pocket and grab something. Before Paul could take his hand out of his pocket, Dave took out his gun and immediately shot Paul in the head. Paul died within seconds of being shot. The prosecutor charges Dave with first degree murder. You are counsel for Dave. What arguments will you make?”
If you are typical law student, you might be wondering where to begin if you see a question like the above one. Below are some last-minute tips that will tell you how to write law school exam answers. These tips can make a big difference in your law school exam grades.
How to Write Law School Exam Answers:
Thoroughly analyze the issues…but not the super-obvious ones. Do not write pages and pages on issues that should obviously turn out one way or the other. For example, in response to the above fact pattern, do not spend ten pages talking about how Dave “caused the death of another human being.” After all, there is no dispute that Paul died. The fact pattern says that “Paul died within seconds of being shot.” It doesn’t require very much analysis.
Thus, a good approach would be to mention this, but spend most of your time focusing on the important issues: that is, whether Dave acted reasonably in defending himself or whether the murder charge could, at the very least, (according to the law in some jurisdictions), be reduced to voluntary manslaughter. If you spend too much time on the obvious issues, you will never get around to providing an adequate analysis of the important issues.
State the relevant rules of law….but do not state every rule of law that you know. In response to the fact pattern above, do not state every rule of law in your outline relating to murder, second degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, self-defense, duress, rape, larceny…It is true that you want to state all of the applicable rules of law but there is a definite big, bold, line between writing every rule of law you know and writing and analyzing the applicable rules of law. A much better approach than writing every rule of law that you know would be to focus primarily on murder, voluntary manslaughter, and self-defense.
The former approach (“outline dumping”) makes you look unfocused and may result in the professor having less confidence in your answer. The latter approach makes you look like a good lawyer that can zero in on the important issues and laws.
Use facts to support your arguments – but do not restate or summarize all of the facts at the beginning of your essay. In response to the fact pattern above, your answer should not start out by saying, “In this case, Dave saw Paul put his hand in his coat pocket and grab something. Dave then shot Paul. Then the prosecutor charged Dave with first degree murder.” I mean, we know that already. It would be nice if professors gave you points for repeating the facts in the introduction to your essay but unfortunately, that is not how it works.
It is true that you want to state specific facts when you are making arguments but summarizing a fact pattern that the grader is already very familiar with (after all, they wrote it) will make the grader glaze over your answer and feel bored. A better answer would begin by simply diving into the important issues. Note that you will probably not lose points for needlessly restating the facts but you will waste valuable time when every second counts.
Use facts to support your arguments – but do not make up new facts and then discuss the facts you made up. In response to the fact pattern above, your answer should not say, “If Dave had shot Paul and missed but shot a person standing behind Paul instead, then the law would say that under the doctrine of transferred intent, Dave would be liable for the death of the third party even though he technically didn’t mean to shoot him because…” While it is true that you want to make arguments using facts (and how they could be interpreted), you do not want to completely change the facts. Indeed if you do so, you’re answering your own question – not the professor’s. Imagine what would happen if you did this in court!
The better answer might try to speculate on unknown facts: i.e. Did Dave know that Paul always carried a gun? Did Paul threaten to shoot Dave before? Or was Paul a peace-loving guy that wouldn’t hurt a fly? It would not hurt to speculate on the history between Dave and Paul to determine the reasonableness of Dave’s actions.
Many students – even the best students – tend to do some of these things as a way of coping with anxiety or stress. If they are nervous or if they are unsure what the answer is (which is a good sign because it means they are spotting the important issues!) they will resort to, for example, only discussing obvious issues, changing the facts, or restating the facts. Instead of falling into these time-consuming traps, focus on zeroing in on the important issues, applying the relevant law to the important facts and arriving at the conclusion that makes the most sense. Remember that many times there is no right answer. If you really don’t know the answer, you are probably on the right track.
If you have questions or comments about how to write law school exam answers, please feel free to comment below.