Advice for new law students, part IV: essay exams

Understandably, new law students stress over how to write essay exams.  In my Civil Procedure class, I run multiple review sessions including an essay exam writing workshop.  For the workshop, I hand out tips and techniques on doing Civ Pro essay exams in my class.  Although the materials below are geared towards Civil Procedure and my class in particular, some may have relevance to other first-year classes.  Keep in mind that other professors may have differing expectations, so the suggestions below may not be applicable to your class.

Substantive considerations:

Argue the facts presented. A common error on essay exams is failing to argue the facts provided.  Sometimes I see relevant facts omitted from the discussion.  Other times, students change facts or invent facts that aren’t in the exam.  Sometimes this is because students don’t want to discuss the issues presented. You can’t do that.  However, if you believe that additional facts are needed for your analysis, state what those facts are how they would affect your analysis.

Focus on the issues raised. Do not raise irrelevant issues.  Use your judgment as to the main issues that are likely to be worth more points.  Minor issues are likely to be worth fewer or no points.  You get no points for “negative issue-spotting.”

Do not be conclusory. Always be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, i.e., provide the “because, because, because.”  (Think of the lyrics to “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”)  If you state a conclusion without indicating (in that sentence or surrounding sentences) “why” or “because,” then you’re probably being conclusory.  Conclusory is bad.

Don’t forget about the cases. Although my main focus in my class in the fall is on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) (we do jurisdiction and Erie in the spring), cases including note cases and notes after the cases are important, too.  They help to flesh out terms within Rules, show splits in authority, and cover matters not covered in the Rules.  As such, you need to know them.  And sometimes the relevant rule of law might be contained within the cases.  Think of Rule 26(b)(1), noting that discovery includes certain “nonprivileged matter.”  But Rule 26(b)(1) doesn’t indicate what is and is not privileged; for the attorney-client privilege as discussed in class, you’ll need to know, for example, the Upjohn case.

Case names and Rule numbers. This term, I do not care if you list case names.  But I do care about you stating the applicable rules of law.  Stating the case name without the relevant rule of law gets you no points.  Instead, you can state the case name with the rule of law.  Or simply state the rule of law without the case name.  Similar considerations exist regarding citing Rules of the FRCP.  Making a conclusory statement and saying, “See FRCP 12(b)” is not stating the rule of law.  You must state what the rule of law is, not just its name.  If you can state the Rule number and the rule of law contained within the Rule, great.  If you can only remember the rule of law contained within the Rule (but not its number), that’s fine too.

Organization and time-management considerations:

Read the instructions carefully. In my exams, they’ll tell you the value of each question and give suggested times.  Also, for users of blue books, write on every other page, every other line: 1) it’s cleaner and easier to read; and 2) if you miss something and have to go back to clarify or add something in, you’ve got room to work with.

Read all questions carefully. Read an essay question several times before outlining an answer.  Read it again after outlining and before writing.  Read it again after you write your answer (to see if you’ve missed anything).

Outline your answer before starting to write. You will feel the time pressure to write right away.  Do not start to write immediately.  Instead, outline your answer before you start to write, either on the exam or the inside front cover of the blue book.  You should outline and make sure that you structure your outline to reflect the issues raised.  If you do a good IRAC outline, you can then easily write up your answer in the IRAC format.   In the event that you run out of time, I may look at the outline and give partial credit for issues spotted, as appropriate.  (But as noted above and applicable generally to these tips, this may vary with your professor.)  Further tips about outlining:

  • Draw a picture.  Diagram the litigation.  It will help you to spot relevant legal issues.
  • Do a “fold” outline.  What I mean is that you might try folding a piece of paper in half:  on the left-hand side, put the Rules and other legal issues along with relevant tests or standards.  On the right-hand side – across from the applicable Rules or issues – put all relevant facts.  This method of outlining might help you to organize your answer.

IRAC format. The IRAC format is taught because it forces you to write in an organized manner.  Having said that and as noted in further detail below, you should be flexible in your approach.  Some questions will involve multiple Rules and issues, so a strict issue-rule-analysis-conclusion order won’t be possible.  Do not apply the IRAC paradigm mechanically; instead, use your outlining time to formulate a flow for IRAC (or multiple IRACs) that fits the needs of the questions presented.  (In fact, for my students, I suggest an IRACAP-C format, namely: issue, rule, analysis, reasonable counter-analysis, policy where applicable, and conclusion.)  Again, different professors may have preferred ways to organize an answer.

Corollary to IRAC: form follows function. Some Rules are mostly logical in their flow, and others center on “squishy” terms.  Some have both elements.  Also, some Rules contain within themselves an implicit order of analysis, whereas others contain a plethora of issues that may or may not be relevant to different contexts.  (Compare a question on Rule 19 to a question on discovery strategies to a complex joinder scenario.)  So realize that the IRAC format you need for a specific question might vary with the Rules and/or issues raised.  My suggestion in your studies – quiz thyself.  Specifically, go through the Rules and try to think of how an essay question might be created to test the operations of a Rule, and the kind of “outline” you’d use to answer questions involving such a Rule.  Coming up with your own questions is a great way to study.  It also helps you to develop the flexibility in organization you’ll need for different kinds of issues.

Use subheadings, or at least paragraph breaks, in your full-length response. Long, unbroken paragraphs/pages tend to be unorganized, verbose and difficult to read.  For me, it is perfectly acceptable to break things up.  Along similar lines, make sure you correctly label your answers, such as “Question 1,” “Question 2,” etc.

Manage your time. Sometimes students have difficulties finishing the all of the questions in the time provided.   Address this issue by:

  • Watching the clock.  Know how much time is suggested for multiple-choice questions and essays.  My instructions clearly state how much time I suggest for each part of the exam, and the points are weighted accordingly.  Don’t spend the entire time writing a brilliant answer to one essay question and then run out of time for other essays and multiple choice questions.
  • Not squandering too much time on essay questions that are worth fewer points.  For example, if one question is worth 20 points with a suggested time of 20 minutes, and another is worth 80 points with a suggested time of 80 minutes, it would be inadvisable to spend 80 minutes on the first question.
  • Knowing your doctrine well.  This minimizes “remembering” time and aids organization.
  • Outlining before writing.  This helps you capture and organize all of the issues before you start writing, so the writing flows quickly.
  • If you start to run out of time, give a quick outline of what you intend to say.  I may give partial credit.  (Again, as noted throughout, your professor’s expectations and practices may vary.)

Write legibly, write grammatically, and do not misspell or misstate key terms. This speaks for itself.  And make sure for summary judgment, you talk about genuine issue of material fact, not general issue of reasonable fact!

More in this series on advice for new law students:

Advice part I (life and stress) here.
Advice part II (studying and attitudes) here.
Advice part III (back up your data) here.
Advice part IV (essay exams) here.
Advice part V (conclusory argumentation) here.
Advice part VI (incomplete argumentation) here.

4 comments on “Advice for new law students, part IV: essay exams”

  1. Negus Zewdu

    Thanks for the well thought article. However you did not say much about IRAC. It will be good if you include an example which shows how IRAC is applied.

  2. Mark

    This is all well and good for writing exams, but when you get into the practice of law, it becomes much more complicated. In real practice, you are not going to have static facts that you just slap a rule of law onto, explain your reasoning and reach a conclusion. No, instead you will have both sides fighting about their version of the facts. You will never see a defendant saying something light “the light was red and i ran it but i am not negligent because [of some b.s. excuse] . . .”. What will happen is the plaintiff will say the light was red and the defendant will say the light was green.

  3. Ira Nathenson

    Point well-taken and thanks! There are appropriate places in law school for teaching and testing such matters. One example that is appropriate to Civil Procedure (which I teach) is testing on summary judgment. In other words, the plaintiff says in her deposition that the light was red, the defendant’s affidavit (or declaration) says the light was green. Is summary judgment appropriate? A simplistic example, to be sure, but just one example of teaching/testing students on the need and function of juries. And of course, there are courses on evidence and trial advocacy.

  4. Lorena Fonseca

    Thanks for all your instructions and advises about how to write our final essay for you. I learned a lot through your article.

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