by Judge Richard Poland,
I teach several courses to my pre-law students in which I give a Mid-Term Exam and a Final Exam similar to exams given to first-year law students. The exams are hypothetical situations in which the students must identify and resolve legal issues having to do with the content of the course. What follows is a hand-out, without the specific examples, which I use during the class period immediately before the Mid-Term Examination.
Every word on the exam probably has some significance. Certainly every sentence does. Read everything twice. Make notes in the margin as you spot issues. It never ceases to surprise me that some students write an exam as though they are unfamiliar with the facts. A few students will spend time discussing an issue which is not presented by the fact pattern, while others fail to deal with an issue which is clearly raised by the facts. Careful reading will resolve potential writing problems.
Most law exam questions are asking you to identify and resolve legal issues raised by the fact patterns. As you identify the issues, make certain you recognize that every argument has two sides. Argue one side using any rules of law or any facts which augment that side of the argument. Then, using a transitional phrase which would make your English professors proud, develop the counter argument. The counter argument may involve a different rule of law from another jurisdiction or line of cases, an exception to the rule of law stated in support of the first argument, a more creative way of looking at the facts, or something else which seems reasonable to you at that moment. Failing to organize your answer with a simple outline, prior to writing the exam, may cause you to ramble. Tight writing is always rewarded. Rambling is always penalized.
This should be a simple task, but experience teaches me it is not. Too many students give me a philosophy of law answer. The task is to read the question(s) and then answer the question(s). After you make the arguments on both sides of the issue, resolve the issue. Lawyers are hired to solve real problems, not to pontificate about a problem in a generalized manner. Only I am allowed to do that. Neither should you restate the facts nor should you create new facts. I am very familiar with the facts. I made them up.
If I give you four questions to write during a two-hour exam, do the math. When you take 50 minutes to answer the first question, you have created a problem for yourself. You may find that the second, third and fourth questions take less time, but do not depend on that. You may find yourself merely listing the issues on the last question and not resolving those issue. For this I give half credit, which means the best grade you will receive is a B. Hurry, but do not rush.
If I cannot read it, you did not write it. If you did not write it, how can I grade it? Several law students have told me that law school is a writing contest. Certainly that was my experience. At some point in the process, everyone has learned how to think critically. Learn to reduce that thinking to writing. Learn to write in a succinct and articulate manner. Your exam will be viewed more positively by those who review it.
Published in the SAPLA Handbook for Pre-Law Advising