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The Smart Way to Pick Your 2L or 3L Year Classes

I may be a little extreme here, but when it came to picking my second year classes, I never picked classes based upon my interests, or what I thought would pay off in my future career as a lawyer. No. I am a little nuts: I planned my schedule based on when the exams were scheduled.

I am not kidding.

Actually, it was not that simple, but it was close. Here was, here is, my thinking. Exams are the place where the real sorting in law school takes place. There are two reasons for this. First, law school exams are the most difficult challenge of law school; four hour exams are both mentally and physically exhausting.

There are also many ways an exam can go sideways on you, no matter how well prepared you are. Under stress, you might happen to totally miss a little fact in the fact pattern that turns the whole problem on its head. Worn out, your handwriting might have gone into the toilet without you even noticing, and the professor can’t read your answer very well.  If you type it on your laptop, you might inadvertently erase the best part of your answer just as time is called.

Secondly, there is the grading side of it. There is a gigantic amount of subjectivity in grading exams. One can never expect that a professor is going to get it sorted right every time, no matter how hard he or she tries. With a pile of 150 blue books, should we not expect that the answers might begin to run together? Surely an answer that seems pretty good one moment might seem only mediocre the next. You get tired writing one exam? Imagine grading 150. In sum, there is a whole lot that can go wrong in an exam, and that makes exams the most unstable grade vehicle in law school.

Intuitively, I saw this problematic aspect of exams and refused to shrug it off. I think that you shouldn’t either. But what can you do about it?

First, I actively tried to take classes that would end up minimizing the number of exams I had each semester. I searched high and low for classes that were graded based on papers rather than exams. Taking clinic classes had the same impact. In view of my grad school background and my success in legal writing during my One L year I guessed that I had better paper writing skills than most people, and I probably did. But that was not the whole point: I had five classes to take, but I certainly did not want to have five exams at the end of the year.  I wanted three if I could pull it off.

Each paper class I had meant one less outline, one less round of practice exams with old tests, and so on. Most importantly: one less exam. There was another bonus: with all exams scheduled in a two week period, every time I reduced the number of exams I had at the end of the year, I effectively inserted more time between each of the exams. That is to say: I had substantially more time than my classmates to recover from one exam—both mentally and physically—and to get in the right frame of mind for the next.

Added to this, I had the deliberate intention in each of my paper classes that I would write the paper as soon as possible in the semester. And I mean as soon as possible. I would typically write the paper in the first two or three weeks of class. In one case, I wrote the paper for a class I knew I was going to take in the next semester during the summer before it even began.

Why? Because once I had the paper written, I could essentially ignore that class for the rest of the semester and focus on my other classes that had exams. Don’t misunderstand: I still went to class out of respect for my professors (and so should you), but my real energies were put elsewhere.

Secondly, I carefully looked at the exam schedule prior to signing up for my classes. Your law school undoubtedly schedules its exams before the beginning of the semester. You can review that schedule when you decide which classes to take. Unless you want to risk having the fate of my three- exams-in-­three-days friend, you better know when your exams are.

Just about now you may be saying to yourself: this guy is insane. I can’t pick my classes based on when the exam is scheduled. I can’t pick a class because it has a paper rather than an exam. Something is wrong with him.

Maybe. But think outside your conventional box a minute. Consider two students in a class that have the same class rank. The first student has five exams at the end of the semester. Let’s also assume she has her exams on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, of the first week, and then Monday and Wednesday in the second week. The other person—a Ninja—however, took a clinic class that was completed a couple weeks ago. She also wrote a paper before the mid-term and has been sitting on it, maybe tweaking it now and then to make it perfect before she turns it in on the last day of exams. She has five classes, but only three exams, with the first on the first Monday of exam week, the second on Friday of the first week, and the third on the Friday of the second exam week.

Tell me: who has the better chance of nailing his or her exams? Who is going to walk into every exam mentally rested and ready and physically at the top of their game? There is no doubt about it. Do you still think I am crazy?

Go One Further: Pick your Classes with Exams Carefully

Minimizing exams will give you a serious advantage over the ordinary law student. There is no question about it. But unless you take summer classes between your first and second year, you will ordinarily not be able to reduce the number of exams you have to less than three in most cases.  So, the important focus then is on correctly picking those exams from the many choices you have.

I have already identified the first principle: pick your exams based on the schedule. You don’t want exams backed up against each other. If you only have three, I would probably try to identify exams that took place on the first day of the exam period, the fifth day, and the last day. This will maximize your time between exams.

Equally, if not more important, is another consideration. Recall, a key exam taking strategy is to carefully study prior exams in the class you are taking.  It follows then, that you need to make sure that whatever exam classes you take, the professor in fact publishes his old exams for that class. A small minority of professors don’t permit their prior exams to be published. I would never take such a class from such a professor. No offense to the professor is meant here; he can do as he pleases. It is just that prior exams are too important for exam preparation to take a class with a professor that will not allow for them to be used.

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