1L Tip of the Day: Start Thinking About the Exam on the First Day of Class

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This post was authored by Alison at The Girl's Guide to Law School. She is a graduate of Columbia Law School where she was a member of the Columbia Law Review. Upon graduation she clerked for a federal judge and did a stint in BigLaw. She founded The Girl's Guide to Law School in an effort to share what she's learned and help other women be successful in law school. 


Here’s a little secret — what’s tested in law school bears little resemblance to what’s taught in law school. I’m not saying law school classes are pointless (we can debate that later), but the way they’re structured can lead to misunderstandings about what you’re supposed to be learning.

How Things Used to Be

Think back to your average undergraduate class. Either the professor would give a lecture on the relevant material, which you’d dutifully attend, absorb, and apply on the exam, or the professor would lead a discussion group, where the class discussion was about the material you’d been assigned and the exam expected you to parrot back parts of that discussion.

In a philosophy course, for example, you might read Kant, discuss the categorical imperative, and take an exam with questions such as:

Does morality require you to ignore your personal interest? Consider Kant’s and Aristotle’s viewpoints. Explain their respective arguments and critically evaluate and compare them.

Although you’re required to express an opinion, the exam is really about what Kant and Aristotle thought about morality.

Introducing “The Socratic Method”

Law school is different. Most classes will employ some variant of the Socratic Method, whereby the professor asks questions about a legal case that’s been assigned in an attempt to elicit the relevant underlying legal principles.

At first glance, this seems similar to undergraduate discussion classes. There’s a critical difference, however. In the philosophy example above, the discussion is truly about the text: what did Kant mean when he discussed the categorical imperative? Understand that, and you’re 90% of the way to an A.

How Law School is Different

In the law school class, however, the discussion isn’t really about this particular text — it’s about the broader underlying legal principles at issue. So, you might be able to confidently discuss the facts of Smith vs. Wesson, you might know which judge wrote the opinion, and you might be able to quote all three dissenting viewpoints.

None of this matters when you get to the exam! To do well on a law school exam, you have to make several additional conceptual leaps.

First, the Holding

First, you’ve got to understand the “holding” of Smith v. Wesson (a case I made up). Say it’s a case about whether a gun company is liable for injuries to an eight-year-old boy who found one of their guns at a friend’s house and accidentally shot himself because the trigger lock wasn’t engaged.

If this is a torts class, the underlying legal issues will be questions about whether this was an inherently dangerous product, whether it was defective, whether it presented an attractive nuisance to a small child, whether the accident was really someone else’s fault, etc.

If it’s a contracts class, the same case presents completely different issues, such as whether there’s the necessary privity of contract between the boy and the gun company.

Next, the Application

Next, you have to take what you’ve learned — for example, that the gun manufacturer is liable because the trigger lock was defective, even though the manufacturer was not negligent in making it defective — and apply it to a new set of facts.

In the new scenario, rather than an eight-year-old boy, you might have a mentally disabled adult. Instead of a gun, there might be exploding spray paint can, and the exploding can wasn’t found at a friend’s house, but was purchased by the defendant from a paint store.

If all you know is that Smith v. Wesson held that the gun trigger lock was defective, you’ll be paralyzed when faced with these new facts.

The Goal: A Flexible Understanding

To succeed on a law school exam, your knowledge must be flexible enough to accommodate the new scenarios. Reaching that level of flexible understanding isn’t easy, but it’s easier when you understand what your ultimate goal is.

From day one, start playing with anything that you’re taught in class. Think of it like Play-Doh. What happens if you push here? What happens if you pull this side? At what point is the doctrine totally unrecognizable?

Your goal is to figure out what’s set in stone, and what’s malleable.

Law School Exams Are About the Grey Areas

Generally, the exam will focus on the grey areas, so the more thought you’ve given to the doctrinal boundaries in advance, the better!

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