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Learning how to learn the law for exam purposes and demonstrating your learning are the keys to high scores on law school exams.

Law Student Writing

Exam time is stressful in any academic program. Class ranks and GPAs are on the line and it is the one time of year when all the tasks are high priority. Winter exams have holiday distractions and spring exams are even harder – we’re tired after the long school year and ready for summer (yes, for the record, faculty feel this way, too.)

For law students everywhere, here’s a look at the top ten tips, in three key strategy areas, for studying to make exam days your best days of the term:

Learn how to learn the law for exam purposes.

1. Law school classes prepare you for practice, not the exam. Fill in the picture after class.

Classroom learning in most law school courses, including JD programs, is built around the Socratic case method, with objectives related to skills of presentation you won’t use on a written, hypo-based final exam but will need in court, in negotiations, etc. Objectives of class include helping students come to understand legal rules, but often this happens pretty indirectly. This means you must take extra steps, beyond class assignments, to nail down the law and how it is structured. Build flowcharts of the issues in the area to see (visually) how they fit together and relate to each other. Look especially for “dependencies”: e.g., “this rule applies if the following is true…” because these are critical to accurate application of the law to facts. Make outlines and lists if those work better. But do it!

2. You must memorize “black letter” law – and more – to beat the exam.

Exams feature hypothetical situations with questions designed to test your ability to apply law to facts. Can’t do much of that without the law, and the exam won’t give it to you. Once you understand the concepts, it is time to memorize. If flowcharts are not your thing – or even if they are and you want to be comprehensive — build flashcards to help you drill and memorize. Make at least these two sets:

Issue Spotting Cards: Build one set of cards with facts (front) and issues (back) to drill for issue spotting skills.  Be sure to note, on the back, the key facts that “trigger” the issues you included.

Rules Cards: Issue (front) and black letter rules (back) to drill the rules once you spot the issue. Look at the front (issue, in a few words) and see if you can remember the back (rules for that issue.)

3. Remember case briefing? Bring it back – in a modified form — to help you prep for exams.

To tackle the set of facts your professor might hand you on test day, you need to build expertise, and in our profession that’s based on the “mental database” you have of samples of the law applied to facts, including the issues involved and how each turned out. Think of it this way: After 40 years of practice, in your area, there won’t likely be anything new to you… not a single set of facts likely to come your way won’t already be familiar. You must get as far along that road as you can with the study time you have. So, build another set of critical flashcards:

Application Cards: On the front place facts, issues, and rules – these can be from your other cards — and on the back how the case turned out and why. Think of the back as the holding and reasoning of the brief on that case. Make these directly from every case source you have: casebook, briefs, practice hypos and essays, and multiple-choice questions. Make as many as you can in each subject.

Note on making flashcards and other study aids: Don’t let the size of the project prevent you from even starting it. Flashcards are the “junk food” of study aids – quickly prepared, easy to eat (drills go fast), and lots of calories (value). Make a few and see how great they are. Having some is better than having none, and you can never be done with the project, don’t worry about it – make what you can. This is something you can do to “steal” some value out of otherwise wasted time, like waiting for a train.

Learn how to demonstrate that you “know it cold” on law school exams.

4. Bring your rules and facts to bear on the hypo(s) you get on exam day.

Obvious, right? Right, but how? Once you have the law and applications down, you need an approach to tackling the question, and exams to practice it on (see below for tips on where to find those.) Here’s a quick approach many bar exam takers find useful for hypo-based law exams:

Step One: Read the call of the question, usually found at the very end of the facts. Find the subject and issues being tested as best you can from the question. Sometimes the hints are big ones, like, “Tom was charged with manslaughter…”

Step Two: “Load the file” of everything you know about that subject and make some notes before you forget it or get distracted by the facts.

Step Three: Read the facts, spotting issues as you go and recording everything you remember about it – especially rules — right then. You can always return to reading the facts, but memory is fleeting.

Step Four: Outline the answer you plan to write. Be sure you have IRAC (Issue – Rule – Analysis – Conclusion) for every issue in your outline. This is where your Application studies really come into play, as they help you build the all-important Analysis section.

Step Five: Write, proofread and move on!

5. Exams on reserve and practice exams online make all the difference.

Ask the librarian at your law school for exams “on reserve” in that subject, from your professor or another. If there are no real exams available, ask about commercial aids or online sources; the librarians will definitely know of some. Write as many as you can, and study the sample answer, if provided. Be certain to write at least 5 practice essay questions in the two weeks before the final. Re-write at least 2 of these to hone your approach, content, and style after reviewing the sample answer. NOTE: This sounds hard – and it is – but many times, this kind of study will do much more for you than many hours of reading outlines or making flashcards. Seeing how exams in the subject are put together, what topics are heavily tested, and how issues come up and are resolved is often much more important than reviewing your class notes yet again.

6. Be sure the IRAC is in there, even when the question frames it as something else.

The basic IRAC (Issue – Rule – Analysis – Conclusion) model applies even where the question asks, for example, that you prepare a letter to the client or a response to opposing counsel. While you should wrap it in some other prose and formatting to match the requested form, when discussing issues, you’ll lose points if those pieces aren’t included somewhere in the answer.

Last minute “lifeline” strategies for law school exams.

All well and good, you say. Those sound like great year-long strategies, you say. But I have more immediate concerns, you say: “I have exams in two weeks! What can I do with my study time for two weeks to make the most difference?”

7. Borrow someone’s casebook briefs (or study aids with commercial briefs) and memorize the fact patterns and how the law turned out in those cases.

You may not have time for making flashcards, but briefs serve many of the same functions. Even book briefs will refresh the facts and holdings you’ll need for test day. Just be sure to drill them like you would flashcards, covering up the holding or issue until you’ve answered it in your head.  Flashcards are also available from sources like Adaptibar, StudyStack, Quimbee, and Law-in-a-Flash, but it is always better to make your own – because you learn the most by making them. (Heck, you might even make your briefs as flashcards in the first place, to save time… note to self for next year.)

8. Do a bunch of multiple-choice questions in the topic of the course, if available.

Remember, once you understand the concepts and know the rules, expertise is the body of application knowledge you have. Even if the subject isn’t tested in multiple-choice format on your exam (or the bar exam), you can learn a lot from practice problems in this format, because each one provides a set of facts for your mental database. Quick, easy, and informative – you’ll love doing them, and they can be the “study break” from harder stuff like memorization. Just be sure to learn from every question you do. It’ll take 2 minutes to do it and 5-10 minutes to study it for what it can teach you for a future, similar fact pattern.

9. Buy the commercial flowchart of the subject and use that for memorization drills. That is, study it, then try to reproduce it from memory on a blank page. Repeat until you can do it. (Start by just trying to get the structure down – this will help you spot issues.)

This memorization drill, used with commercial outlines or flowcharts, is proven to help solidify the structure of the law in a subject, so you can reproduce it – just the parts you need – on the exam. Drill it over and over again, each time starting with a blank page, until you fill it accurately with the testable issues and sub-issues.

10. Get an attack strategy from a recent alum who is studying for the bar (if a bar-tested subject).

Most commercial bar reviews offer substantive attack strategies for each essay subject. You might be able to “borrow” one from a friend if you don’t have time to make your own (always better, because the process of making it teaches you the area.)  This kind of attack strategy should fit on one page and include all the main issues and sub-issues, along with elements, exceptions, and related issues. Use the same memorization drill to be sure you can picture all of it before you write your exam.

Law professors are looking for papers that spot the right issues, clearly cover the law and conclusions, and most importantly, explain the reasoning. All the pieces have to come together to make a successful exam: understanding, memorization, organization, writing, and analysis. Show the professor you know it cold! Absorb the analysis skills lessons from the classroom, fill in the picture with black letter rules you commit to memory, and a get big mental database of applications to help with analysis. Then practice, practice, practice and execute on test day. Good luck!

Adaptibar Flashcards can be found here.

StudyStack is a source for free, community-sourced study aids (care is warranted on accuracy, but it can be a good starting point).

Quimbee has built a great reputation for the quality of its resources for law students.

Get Law-in-a-Flash from many sources, including Amazon.


Gregory J. Brandes is a law professor and Dean of St. Francis School of Law. He is an expert on legal education and admission to the bar and is admitted to the bars of the United States Supreme Court, Colorado, and Illinois.