Soldier On: Boot Camp to Law School—The Art of the Backbrief

Whether you are in your first, second, or last year of law school, you have just completed fall final exams. January marks the beginning of a new semester. This is the perfect time to assess how you performed. More importantly, the new year offers a fresh opportunity to learn to gather critical information that you can use to collect extra points during spring exams.

Tailoring individual essay exams toward specific professors provides the opportunity to gain extra points because professors are human. They like to know that students paid attention to what they taught. This blog explains how to tailor exams using the military backbrief as a means to earn coveted additional exam points.

Backbrief Basics

Though commanders and professors differ in many ways, in some ways they are alike. Both act as leaders imparting knowledge to subordinates or students. In return, they expect excellent outcomes from those over whom they lead.

Commanders cannot assume that subordinates understand their assigned mission. The military uses the backbrief as a tool to ensure understanding. The backbrief reveals to the commander how subordinates intend to accomplish the mission. In the same way, law school professors gauge students’ understanding via the end-of-term essay exam. The military backbrief model can be used to produce standout law school exams. It works something like this.

The commander assigns the mission. Good commanders provide clear guidance to subordinates, but also allow them to creatively determine how best to execute the mission. When the commander initially issues the mission, she discloses which things she deems mission-essential. Smart subordinates always include the mission-essential elements when they backbrief the commander. Additionally, though, subordinates understand that their commander also prefers certain things. They have wisely paid attention to the commander’s implied guidance. The best backbriefs are thorough, accurate, and they include the commander’s explicit and implied wishes.

Specifically, the subordinates explain—that is, they brief back to the commander—how they will execute the mission; given all the information she has provided.

Commanders appreciate well-prepared backbriefs because good briefs show the commander that the subordinates understand the commander’s intent and know what is important to her. And the more the commander trusts that her intent was clearly understood, the more likely she is to reward subordinates with freedom to execute the mission of their design. 


The same techniques can be employed to successfully earn extra points on exams. Professors, like commanders, routinely dispense valuable pieces of information that will help you write a standout essay. The trick is learning to gather these clues all semester and then use them during exams.

Importantly, tailoring essays to each unique individual professor ensures a happy grader. And happy graders want to award extra points. Reading your essay, the one in which you have included all of the professor’s explicit and implicit guidance, naturally seems to the professor to be just what they ordered. Your small effort to tailor your essays exclusively for individual professors, guarantees you those coveted extra points.

So no matter how quirky your professors’ preferences seem—tailor your essay like a backbrief. Write exclusively to that professor on their exam.

For instance, if one professor made clear that he does not want to read a general introductory paragraph, but every other professor wants one—heed your commander’s guidance! In practice, this means you would leap right to analyzing the first issue for the first professor who does not like introductory paragraphs. But, you would draft a general introductory paragraph for all of your other professors’ exams. Why? Because professors are humans. They like to read essays that illustrate—down to the smallest detail—that you were paying attention even to the little things. They like to see that someone heard what they had to say.

And if you notice that a professor particularly dislikes certain words or other things, make sure to avoid those while writing your essay. For example, one of my professors loathed the word “thus” (yes, loathed!). Therefore, astute students constructed essays steering well clear of that word.

Or you may have to write more formulaically than you prefer to, if that is what your professor wants. Do it anyway. Follow the formula your professor described if he likes essays written in a particular manner.

Final exams are not the time to parade your independent spirit. They are meant to show that you know the law, you can apply the facts to the law, and that you are professional enough to cleverly tailor your answer to (dare I say?) charm the grader.

Don’t worry. You control your own destiny after law school. But for the closed universe that is the exam, do yourself a favor. Earn some extra points by conscientiously backbriefing each professor. Deliver what they want, and you will reap the reward.

A thoughtful backbrief by way of a tailored essay can make the difference between average and outstanding.



Great job Julie. As a fellow service member, I can relate.


Julie, you are an amazing writer.  Your guidance is so true and genuine.  With first year of law school far behind me, I wish I had learned to stick to basics because the creative writer in me made my exam preparation more stressful.  Concise writing—mechanical writing—is a skill that lawyers and judges look for.  Thank you for taking the time to mentor others!

Julie Cummings

Thanks for your kind remarks, Jewelsss. I’m glad you liked the piece, and I appreciate your positive feedback.

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