I can't work it out with a pencil
November 9, 2007 6:02 PM   Subscribe

I need to pass a legal exam. Trouble is, I'm no legal genius and I haven't sat an exam in decades. How would you get down to cramming the facts?

I need to get my Professional Engineer licence for Ontario. Much to my surprise, I passed my ethics exam, but failed the legal part, so have to resit in December. I'd never failed an important exam before, and managed to get through university only having to sit one exam that was in essay question form.

I am, at best, a last-minute desultory studier. Memorising stacks of facts was never my thing, and precedents just make my head spin.

Suggestions, please, for effective study.
posted by scruss to Education (6 answers total)
The only thing I can suggest, barring your usual propensity for cramming, is to slow down. Study during evenings and revisit the material covered the night before the next morning. You do have until December, take it a little at a time. Also flashcards work, although I don't know how relevant that will be in your case. Good luck.
posted by Odinhead at 6:54 PM on November 9, 2007

Last minute late night cramming does work for facts requiring rote recitation, like language vocabulary. For the purposes of synthesis, however, which I imagine your test will require, slow and steady is the way to go. The New York Times recently devoted its entire science section to advances in sleep research. In particular, this article addresses current findings in learning and memory retention as affected by sleep patterns.

Their podcast for that week is instructive about the observed relationship between sleep and test scores... Listen to it via iTunes or MP3. The bottom line is: get exactly the same amount of sleep every night, for at least a week before the test.
posted by mumkin at 7:33 PM on November 9, 2007

Maybe a better strategy is to learn the format of the test, the vibe. Recently I took some state exams and noticed that the way the multiple choice questions were worded, you could usually rule out two of the answers right away and you were left with two. That increases your odds enormously. See if you can notice a pattern (or remember a pattern) and learn to navigate that pattern because it might be more useful than jamming your head full of factoids. Good luck.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:53 PM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: I've taken lots of legal exams. I don't know anything about this particular exam, but I'll try to give you some pointers.

It sounds like it's an essay exam, and that the material you're studying at least partially involves "precedent." To me, "precedent" means a particular case--a set of facts with a decision and (hopefully) some reasoning.

I'm speculating that the exam involves presenting a factual scenario and asking you to determine whether the actions describe were legal. Again, I've taken a lot of legal exams, so if these assumptions aren't correct, let me know.

The key to dealing with precedent is reading for the "rule." You want to distill the case down to a single-sentence statement that is specific enough not to overreach but general enough to apply to relevantly similar cases.

It's quite possible that your engineering brain is demanding a precise definition of "relevantly similar" at this point, but unfortunately I can't give you one. What I can suggest, though, is comparing different precedents. If two similar precedents come out differently, then whatever factually distinguishes them must be a relevant difference, and you have to construct the rule of each precedent so as not to overlap.

Basically, remember that rules of law really only ever make sense in relation to each other. Reading an individual piece of legal authority in isolation is begging to be mislead.

As for the exam itself, the trusty old Issue-Rule-Analysis-Conclusion never let anyone down, so you might as well use that. It's easier to show than tell:

The question: Timmy the Engineer builds bridges for a living. A client asks him to design a tower for him, and Timmy agrees to do so, even though he doesn't know much about towers. Timmy consults with Bobby, an expert on towers, and builds the tower, but its design is flawed and it collapses, killing eight children.

Now, your answer.

First, issue (the underlying legal issue raised by the case): "The issue is whether an engineer can be held responsible for deaths caused by the faulty design of a project undertaken outside his expertise if he or she consult with an expert while undertaking the project."

Then, rule (a statement of the relevant law): "In Ontario, an engineer can only be held responsible for deaths stemming from a design flaw if the flaw is due to the engineer's gross negligence."

Next, analysis (an application of the specific facts of the case to the rule): "Timmy would have been grossly negligent to undertake the project without consulting with an expert, but since he did consult with the expert Bobby, there is no indication that the deaths stemmed from Timmy's gross negligence."

Finally, conclusion: "Timmy was not grossly negligent, since he consulted with an expert. He won't be liable for the deaths caused by the collapse."

I hope some of the above is relevant to your particular exam. Feel free to tell me more about your particular exam, because I've probably taken something similar.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 8:41 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I sat mine for Alberta, I used flash cards to help me. I maintain that they are the best way to memorize something.

For 'zample
Side one: instance of liability/precedent - see Elvis' bridge example above.
Side two: description of liability and applicability.

You can turn the cards around for re-use. Be prepared to note alternative cases of liability ("if you sketch a diagram of a garage for your neighbour on a napkin, and he builds according to your napkin sketch and the garage falls down, are you liable?") and discuss.

If I recall also, Safety, Loss Management and Occupational Health and Safety were big parts of the exam as well. You can use the flash cards for this also. OSHA was a significant portion of my test, but also my weakest part. Sorry to say, I didn't consider law as sexy as engineering. (engineering? sexy? - lol)

I used recipe cards back in the day, but there is PC/Mac based software you can use to help you today, but I don't know anything about it other than it is available. For this though, I would go analogue.

If memory serves (probably not) my test was short answer and multi-choice not essay based.

Good luck!
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 8:32 AM on November 10, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks; index cards it is!
posted by scruss at 5:48 PM on November 11, 2007

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