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The Look and Feel of the Great Law School Exam

How does the majority of One Ls end up in the big middle? Exam preparation. Most people do just enough exam prep to get an outline done, or to find an outline somewhere and read it. They may even read their outlines a few times. That is the balance of what they do to prepare for the exam.


When these poor souls walk into an exam, do you know what happens? The exam fact pattern arrives and the twists and turns in it start to swirl all the concepts that they remember around in every impossible direction in their head. Or, they remember that the professor mentioned the key exam words that really confusing day in class two months ago and they struggle to place the concepts. And then another word comes, another idea.

About now their stomach shrinks, they feel blood rush from their heads, and they shake for a bit trying to get started writing who knows what. This sensation is rehearsed thousands of times every year in One L exams all over the country.

When they finally start getting something down on paper, it is not anything that resembles a strong answer. Sure, their answers may start to approach the subject, may start to work around the edges, may start to vaguely poke at the law that matters for this or that topic. They stumble around trying to think of the right things, trying to recall how their outline put this or that detail, trying to find the answer to the question in the fog that is now their memory.

Most of their energy is spent just trying to remember the material itself, and just get an answer down that is more or less correct. And when they finally do remember, they write it down in fits and starts. In the end, the answer has the precision of a water color painting where, well, there was just too much water.

What separates the middle student from those who end up in the top 30% is not primarily about differences in knowledge of the law. It is about exam performance: how well you present the answer everyone else is presenting at the same time. The question is, as the professor is sorting the huge group of the same answers to an exam, how does your exam feel to the professor in comparison to the others? Is there a reason your exam emerges from the large pile of ordinary answers? If it does, you will end up on the right side of the exam scoring; if it doesn’t, you won’t.

It may seem terribly subjective, and maybe it is. But it is what it is. A law professor reading 150 exams simply cannot manage a careful and objective individual comparison of each exam answer to all others through a comprehensive and objectifiable system of measures. It isn’t possible.

Instead, the grading is going to be done more intuitively, through a sorting process that may seem too subjective for some. Maybe it is, but it is a fact of life in law school, and you need to account for it as you prepare for exams.

First, the professor is going to immediately draw one distinction: is the exam answer more or less correct, or is it not? That is where the sorting starts.

Then, between those that are more or less correct, the professor will group them in piles, so to speak, of quality. The ones that are more or less correct and stated poorly will stay in the lower middle to the middle of the curve. The more or less correct answers that are stated reasonably clearly will be in the middle to the higher middle of the curve. If the answers are more or less correct and stated well, the exam will end up in the top 30%. And those that are correct and stated very well will end up in the top 10%. It isn’t perfect, but this sorting process is more or less how exams shake out in virtually every case.   

This sorting process tells us what we need to know about how to get into the top tier of the class. What we need is a sharp answer, extremely focused, well designed, and well executed. In order to do that, the raw material for the answer has to be immediately at hand. You are not going to spend most of your time searching for the “more or less correct” answer to the question from the vague senses of it in your head. That is what everyone else will be doing. You are not going to focus on what the answer to the question is at all. No, that has already come to you as soon as you read the problem.

Instead, your whole exam time is going to focus on how to best put the answer you already certainly know onto paper; that is, how to craft a correct answer, not merely come up with it. There is an enormous difference between the two. The diff erence is the difference between being in the top of the class and being in the middle.

Memorizing your outline to an absolute fault is the first step to equipping you with the raw material you need for your answers.   

Monet, sure, he was a genius. What I want from you is a Caravaggio. (Look it up).  You can field dress a battle wound? Good for you. But the people who make the real money in law school exams are the plastic surgeons.

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