How to write law school exam answers?
February 2, 2008 3:24 PM   Subscribe

How do I adjust my writing style to fit law school exams?

I've been writing my whole life, and for all my schooling been universally praised for it. It got me to the top of classes I had no business being at the top of, and even got me some writing jobs in film and television, based on my samples.

I know I can write, but having just received my grades from the first semester of 1L year, it turns out that I cannot write AT ALL for these sorts of exams. The problem (problems?) is that all of my professors make a point of downplaying the importance of their exams (which are of course the entirety of our grades) and give us very little guidance as to what they're looking for in terms of either substance or style.

My writing style is as such (when I really mean it, I mean):

Economy of language; preference for word choices with strong connotations.
Dry humor; clear to those with an understanding of the subject, but never meant to distract from the issue being discussed.
VERY structuralist; as in, I can't just ramble on and get all thoughts out of my head without figuring how they all interconnect.

As a related question, if anybody knows of a worthwhile law school tutoring service in the D.C. area, I need it badly now, I fear.

posted by Navelgazer to Education (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in exactly the same position you are. 1L in DC, just got (disappointing) grades back, English major/excellent writer, etc. I think at least part of it is totally arbitrary and the result of a rigid grading curve. I also think you're somewhat at the mercy of the choice of question - I studied very little for Torts and did reasonably well, studied Civil Procedure for about a week and did less well. Beyond that I have very little insight as to how any of it works, and that seems to be the consensus opinion.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:42 PM on February 2, 2008

Get yourself to a LEEWS course immediately. Cheese-ay, but it worked for me.

The sad thing is, writing style really doesn't matter, not in the way you're thinking of it. If you're taking much time to ponder word choice, you're not doing it the right way. Adequate legal writing can be really choppy and ugly -- and what you're aiming for is adequate writing, with all the points of law and analysis you can possibly cram in in the alloted time. Of course, beautiful writing would be better, but it's more important to rack up points than be beautiful. You're not really looking to persuade on law school exams -- you're looking to dump as much relevant law and analysis as possible onto the page.
posted by footnote at 3:47 PM on February 2, 2008

It sounds like your writing style is perfect for a law school exam, so I imagine the part you need help with is the substance. Law school exams are difficult because (as you said) you get no information about how to study or write for them, there are often very few or no past exams to look at, and on top of that, professors vary wildly in the type of exam they give and how they grade. It's a bit of a crap shoot, but there are things you can do to maximize your chance at success.

I suggest talking to each of your first semester professors to get advice on the actual exam you wrote. Most will be very happy to give you pointers. Email first to set up an appointment (even if it's during office hours) so they know you're serious, and review your exam beforehand (if possible) so you can ask questions and follow their advice.

Second, you should looks into a LEEWS course. I know nothing about the course myself, but I know several people who took it either live or on CDs, and they said it was amazingly helpful.
posted by pitseleh at 3:47 PM on February 2, 2008

Best answer: There are lots of books on this subject (Getting to Maybe is a classic), but here is some distilled wisdom.

1. Address the compulsories. If a problem has some obvious issues in it, then address those issues. Do not move on to the grand sweeping policy discussion without first answering the obvious questions.

2. Give reasons. Lawyers are not paid to put labels on things. "There is subject matter jurisdiction" does not get you points. You get points for everything that comes after the word 'because.' So, "There is subject matter jurisdiction because the plaintiff alleges that its patent has been infringed by the defendant's product in violation of 35 USC 271. 28 USC 1338 grants the federal courts exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over all cases and controversies arising under the federal patent laws."

Of course, use synonyms like since, as a result of, etc, but your goal should be to give clear, coherent reasons not to come to conclusions. The more you can show a strong application of the law to the facts, the better you will do. This is what professors are trying to get at when they construct exams with no clearly correct conclusion.

In all seriousness, go through each of your exams with a highlighter and pick out each time you use the word 'because' or a synonym. There should be at least one highlighted word or phrase for every two sentences.

3. As one professor put it, "the goal of a law school exam answer is to reproduce your course outline in the context of the question." Essentially, apply everything in your outline to the facts of the problem, excluding only those parts that are truly, obviously, completely inapplicable. Use it as an opportunity to show how much you learned.

Now, as for some of your particular points: do not use a word with strong connotations unless the facts warrant it. For example, do not use the word "baseless" unless there truly is no evidence whatsoever for the claim or assertion you are describing. Especially do not rely on a strong word to save you the trouble of explaining how you came to that conclusion, as professors are not so easily fooled.

You will not get points for humor, so don't even try.

Most professors understand that there is not a lot of time for outlining and revision in a 3 or 4 hour exam. It is generally more important that you get lots of paragraphs down addressing lots of issues even if you don't or can't connect them.
posted by jedicus at 3:50 PM on February 2, 2008 [7 favorites]

Some people write too WELL for the law school exam system.

There is a way to do it and this guy ( Wentworth Miller knows how to teach it. I read about it in Planet Law School, took it and have written all my exams with his suggestions in mind, with excellent results. I would ordinarily have attacked exam questions less mechanistically, but this works. Also, I think it's guaranteed (some part of $$ back if you don't seriously improve)
posted by mmf at 3:51 PM on February 2, 2008


It doesn't matter how you write as long as you spot all the issues. I found following a really annoyingly strict IRAC (issue, rule, analysis, conclusion) format for my writing helped dramatically. If you're used to writing, I'm sure writing this way will piss you off to no end (I know it still bothers me to do it this way, but I've got the top grade in a few of my classes now that I've switched from writing essay style to writing this way), but it will help make sure you spot more issues.

Instead of writing a straight essay, break every issue out into paragraphs. Your answers should then take the form of.

The issue here is ________. The rule for this is ___________________.

In this case ______________________ (lots of analysis, maybe compare to cases you read if your prof likes that)


And most importantly ... don't forget to add an ON THE OTHER HAND analysis at the end.

And yah, go talk to your Professor's. They're there to help. Second semester exams will seem much easier know that you know what to expect.
posted by Arbac at 3:56 PM on February 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've done well on my exams. I do consider myself a good writer-- but I don't think that has anything to do with it. pitseleh and footnote are right-- it is probably the substance where you're lacking. Hit every point. Make the structure of your analysis obvious. Break every possible issue out and deal with it.

I honestly don't think I've ever pondered my "writing style" on a law school exam. I have paid a lot of attention to a) law b) hypos and c) structure.

If you'd like to talk more about this send mail. I'm happy to chat.
posted by miss tea at 4:17 PM on February 2, 2008

The thing with law school exams is your job isn't just to answer the question, your job is to answer the question, explain why all the other possible answers are wrong and then attempt to in anyway possible (time permitting) try to demonstrate to your teacher just how much you know about the subject. Anything you can extrapolate on you should.

I think the best thing you can do is try to get your hands on model answers (they are often hard to get your hands on, but if you work hard enough you probably can) and also before any exams spend massive amounts of time doing practice exams.

Good luck!
posted by whoaali at 4:27 PM on February 2, 2008

Seconding jedicus on 3. Half the battle here is just spotting the issues. You may not be able to give every issue equal time -- and should certainly spend more time on key issues -- but spotting the hidden issues -- and displaying more of your mastery of the class (i.e. reproducing more of your course outline) -- will help distinguish your exam. Good luck!
posted by rdn at 4:29 PM on February 2, 2008

Response by poster: Okay... Thanks to everybody (and to anyone else who can answer and help.) I think I've got an idea of how to put this into the terms and ideas of structure from my schooling and experience in screenwriting. However, thinking I've got it is exactly what led me to this position in the first place, so I'd like to hear what y'all think of this:

In screenwriting, basic structure is as follows.

First Act: Introduce your characters, the main goal of your characters, and the inherent problems that they will face in attempting to achieve that goal. Roughly a quarter of the screenplay, at max, barring special circumstances.

Second Act: Those problems come to fruition, and you take the characters through those problems, along with all complications which arise from them. This act takes up by far the majority of screen time, and should all lead to the inevitable

Third Act: Conclusion. Everything beforehand can only lead to this, or else the entirety doesn't work. Very important, but should take up a minumum of time.

In law school exam terms, then:

Issue and Rule: Set up everything about the people involved, and what they want, and the state of the law being argued.

Analysis: Take those people through each issue and the complications involved, making sure that the Key problems be treated as the "main plot" and smaller issues as interesting subplots with bearing on the main plot. By far the majority of the answer.

Conclusion: Make sure that this is the only answer that may be drawn from the analysis, but nonetheless keep this part short.

Am I on the right path here?
posted by Navelgazer at 4:41 PM on February 2, 2008

Best answer: I'm a little concerned that you've already highlighted a best answer here, especially because it is not the most helpful one (sorry jedicus). The suggestions that you look into LEEWS and/or focus on IRAC are what you really need. You need to completely tear down your writing style and start over again writing law school exam answers.

Quit thinking of law school exam responses as philosophical essays (or literary criticism essays or any other types of essays, really). A law school exam response is basically an outline without the bullet points. You should run through all of the relevant parts of your outline and write a paragraph(ish) for each doctrine that applies. When you do address it, it should be in roughly the IRAC format.

So if a torts question presented a plausible negligence situation, you'd start by saying "Party X is liable for negligence if 1) he had a duty to party Y, 2) he breached that duty, 3) actually and 4) proximately causing 5) a legally cognizable harm to party Y" (or whatever rule formation you learn in class, obviously. Insofar as they ever get around to stating one). Then you'd move on: "Issue 2: Breach. A party is held to breach his duty if [state the rule on breach]. Here, the party did [list RELEVANT facts]. Whether there is breach here is a close question BECAUSE [describe how relevant facts meet doctrinal elements]. Plaintiff will argue _; defendant will argue _. The court will most likely rule _." (I skipped issue 1, is there a duty, because there's always a duty)

Then move on to the next issue. See where the deep policy analysis goes? Nowhere. If you have the time, you can put in a couple sentences but only AFTER you do the rule statement - application to relevant facts - likely conclusion. You're just not going to get credit for the aspects of writing you used to consider good. I've seen some "model" answers that get the highest grades in the class, and they don't even use complete sentences or proper grammar all the time - let alone having a thesis statement or understated wit. It's just not about that.

Lots of professors give you a "policy" question at the end where you get to go off like you're used to in writing classic academic essays. Some programs (like LEEWS) recommend that you apply the same answering technique to these, but it really varies from one prof to the next what they like in those policy essays.

Good luck.
posted by rkent at 4:57 PM on February 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Honestly, I'm not sure screenplay structure will be a helpful template for your law school exam answer. For example, rather than "Set up everything about the people involved" in the Issue and Rule section, you should simply state the issue and rule in 1 or 2 sentences, max. It's crucial to include that information, but at the same time, you will get almost no points in that area because almost everyone in your class will have the same thing. You'll get the most points by spotting as many issues as you can, stating as many rules as you can, and most importantly, analyzing the application of the rule thoroughly based on the given facts.

Again, LEEWS.
posted by pitseleh at 5:00 PM on February 2, 2008

The answer is much more simple than any of the above. Find an exam you did poorly in. Go to the professor and ask why.

It might be that you're a fantastic writer, and just don't know the law as well as you should. It might be you're bad at issue spotting. It might be that you're a good writer, just not the way your professors would like. You don't really know what the problem is until the professor tells you.

Lather, rinse, repeat for all of your less than stellar grades.
posted by toomuchpete at 5:01 PM on February 2, 2008

Issue and Rule: Set up ... the state of the law being argued.

Only sort of - don't "set up the state of the law" by listing all the cases on point, if that's what you're thinking. Get used to the idea of synthesizing all the cases you read into a single rule statement per doctrine, or maybe 2 or 3 alternative rule statements if relevant for a particular subject. Then in your exam response, just say the thing you've come up with as your synthesized rule statement. Really, the thing I wrote above for negligence is about all the rule statement you need. Your statement may vary somewhat, but I don't know if I'd call it "setting up the state of the law," as that implies a lot of policy discussion.

Seriously, just buy a copy of the LEEWS book. It's not perfect but it'd be good to get an idea of that approach, since it sounds so very different from what you're currently doing.
posted by rkent at 5:05 PM on February 2, 2008

(law grad here)
I finally learned the key to scoring well on law school exams (assuming you have learned the material properly and this is just a question of expression) - underline, bold, or capitalize the catch phrases.

Seriously. Professors quickly skim through exams, and making it easy for them to recognize your correct answers will help you tremendously. This works for the Bar exam essays too. Once I learned this rule, my grades improved and stayed high.

Otherwise, write very clearly and simply.

Here's the perfect anecdote. True story from Georgetown. My highly esteemed professor made available a couple of 'best exams' from the year before for our review. One of these best responses started with some essay writing, but finished with a simple outline, followed by the words, "Sorry famous professor X. I ran out of time! Great class!" Yes. This illustrates one or both of my theories of law school exams - (1) make sure the professor can spot the catch phrases and/or (2) professors do not carefully read exams.

Good luck! Law school can be bruising on the ego - hang in there - you're still smart!
posted by Amizu at 5:50 PM on February 2, 2008

Seconding rkent. Repeat 100x: law school grades do not measure intelligence. Anyone who thinks they do is a fool.
posted by Brian James at 7:10 PM on February 2, 2008

I did LEEWS before law school and didn't find it very helpful. I can't really speak to what does work -- even with 8 credit hours to go in law school, I have no clue why I got which grades in which classes. But LEEWS isn't for everybody. I'd recommend doing the live version where you've got a money-back guarantee if it doesn't work for you. (extra tidbit: the guy who does LEEWS is the father of this Wentworth Miller).
posted by katemonster at 7:45 PM on February 2, 2008

Response by poster: Amizu, thanks... as a current Georgetown student, that helps alot.

Though I'm a section 3 kid... any hope of similarity there?
posted by Navelgazer at 10:27 PM on February 2, 2008

Navigazer - I was in Section 3 too. Really, the same goes. I don't know who the current professors are, but I think it was a certain tyrant who teaches civ pro and also civil rights stuff who joked that your grade depended on how many glasses of wine he'd had by the time he got to your exam. My point is that professors have a lot of exams to read - especially at a school as big as Georgetown - and many of them skim or get exam-reading fatigue. If you can use some device to draw their attention to the essential points, you will undoubtedly score higher. (Assuming you're right, of course!)
posted by Amizu at 4:44 AM on February 3, 2008

Oh yeah-- I'd recommend against coming to a hard-and fast 'conclusion' in an exam. The hypos are meant to be ambiguous. Where you'd put a conclusion section, instead say "X probably Y, unless Z." If you say "X is liable" or whatever you'll probably lose points.
posted by miss tea at 6:35 AM on February 3, 2008

Dear Navelgazer:

I was in precisely your situation in my 1L year. Please think about attending a LEEWS course, as it helped me quite a bit. Also, don't forget that legal writing is essentially formulaic. To that end, it may help you to examine some of the forms pertinent to your classes. You don't want to follow them, necessarily, but, as a writer, think about the rhetoric implicit in a form.

Be prepared to spit back all elements, multi-prong tests, and what not, that you remember from your course. Write your outlines around these things. And remember that writing skills can be a liability in writing a legal exam. Learn to think by bullet point and learn to write for the reader who will not spend more than 30 seconds looking at what you write.

And don't forget that, 6 months after you graduate, nobody will care about your grades. At all.
posted by deejay jaydee at 7:41 AM on February 4, 2008

Have you read Getting to Maybe? If not, go read it right now.

And review each of your exams with your professors. Simply reading my horrid torts exam next to one of my classmates' solid performance, I immediately saw my problem. (I spotted and set up the issues correctly, but didn't fully analyze each one.) For each issue, discuss the reasons why it falls on one side or the other. Break down each question into its component issues and address each issue (and sub-issue) with quality analysis.

Writing a good law exam requires structure and quality of analysis. (Note that quality of writing is not one of the factors. Writing in grammatically correct English-- or a close approximation of grammatically correct English is important, but spending any time on choosing words beyond terms of art and/or issue relevant key words is a waste of time.)

Did I mention Getting to Maybe? I only repeat myself, because I found that to be incredibly helpful and useful.
posted by andrewraff at 8:18 AM on February 4, 2008

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