One word: Hard. You can debate all day about whether anything else in academia is harder, but I’m here to tell you that law school exams are just plain tough. Basically, when you study for and take a law school exam, you are entering gladiatorial combat with 100 or so other people who are just as bright and motivated as you, and just about all of them are looking for a tiny edge anywhere they can get it to do well on the test.

Your true enemy though is not your classmates but the curve which forces you to compete with them for “good” grades. Law school exam scores are made to fit to an inflexible bell curve where there must be high grades and low grades. Generally law school grades are curved so that for every grade above the predetermined median someone must receive an equivalent grade below the median. While there are plenty of little tweaks to this system at different schools, the curve is a persistent part of law school life.

The curve makes it so that even if everyone turned in a great answer, there still has to be winners and losers. One professor of mine was kind of enough to tell our class that the quality of our exams overall was far and away the best he had ever seen. Yet some people got A equivalent grades, and some people got C equivalent grades — he had no choice but to do it that way.

What’s on A Law School Exam?

To pick apart why exactly law school exams are such a rare and terrifying beast, let’s first look at what makes up a typical law school exam as far as the structure and content. The most typical form of an exam question is an issue-spotter. This type of questions makes up the bulk of most exams. An issue-spotter typically has one or more questions containing fact patterns. A fact pattern is a description of hypothetical events that may have various legal consequences which the test taker is expected to discuss intelligently.

The building blocks of these fact patterns are so-called issues, which are facts in the question that should trigger for the thoughtful law student an occasion to discuss something learned in class or from the reading. Usually you are describing what laws apply to these facts and what the outcomes might be, should be, or what you might need to know to resolve the issue.

Issues can range from really easy ones that you discuss in one sentence to very complex ones that require you to analogize creatively from other cases. Let’s give you an example of some more easy issues so you know what we are talking about.

Litigious Lee is try to serve a complaint on Tortious Tom for harms related to an accident. He himself brings the complaint and summons to Tom’s primary residence and gives them to Tom’s 12-year-old son.

A law student reading these facts for his or her 1L civ pro exam would spot a couple issues if asked whether service was proper. The easiest issue to spot is that Lee serving the complaint renders the service improper because a party can’t serve the complaint his or herself according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A student answering may also wish to point out the other issue raised, which is that even if Lee had not served it himself, service might still be improper because it is not clear that Tom’s son is of suitable age to receive summons, given the rule that a summons “must be left at the individual’s dwelling or usual place of abode with someone of suitable age and discretion who resides there”. The answer may then have to discuss any case law read for class that discussed how the phrase “suitable age and discretion” should be interpreted. 12 years old might be old enough, then again maybe not.

What may surprise some is that generally you want to answer these questions in plain, concise, non-legal sounding speech. A lot of professors don’t even care if you cite the rule or case that you are using to discuss an issue as long as you describe the law correctly (then again, some professors make you cite everything).

Exams also usually contain a policy question. A policy question really focuses on your ability to make a persuasive argument, often based on theoretical discussions you may have had in class. For example a property professor may ask you to discuss the merits of a long-standing practice of cab usage in NYC whereby the first passenger to hail the cab and get in has the right to control the route and choose whether or not to pick up other passengers. If it seems to you now that you wouldn’t have anything much to say about this, believe me, you will after 1L property.

Rarely you might get some multiple choice on a law school exam. Don’t expect it to be like any other MC you have ever had. I remember we had 25 questions on one 1L exam and I think my 10 right on it put me among the best in the class (too bad I didn’t do so hot on other parts of that exam). These questions had answers that you simply wouldn’t know for sure from class reading or discussion, but which you might be able to reason out from what you have learned to arrive at some plausible answer. It was seriously diabolical.

How Long are Law School Exams?

At my law school, U Chicago, exams generally fell in to two types, the 3 hour in-class exam and the 8 hour take-home exam.

3 hour in-class exams usually fall in to two types- those with word limits and those without. Tests with no word limit are the Cadillac of hard tests, because generally you are placed under terrific time pressure. What law professors do to make these tests very hard is simple but ingenious. They just put way more facts and issues on the test than any human could tackle in the appointed time. Students are left to just type away as frantically as they try to race each other to hit the most issues. That’s why these tests are often referred to as typing contests.

As if just hitting the issues was not enough, you also would do well to spend more time talking about difficult issues and make sure you don’t dwell on ones that aren’t a big deal. What’s more, you are often graded on clarity and organization.

This is generally even more the case with word-limited exams. Generally here you have to create a really well crafted response to impress the teacher and get good marks. A lot of students find these exams the most frustrating because they punish mistakes- Word-limited exams are often more about being more accurate with a very limited set of facts. If you miss a single issue on the exam it may hurt a lot because there just aren’t that many issues to spot.

This leads students to feel that such exams are a little arbitrary because everyone turns in a superficially very similar response, yet, as always, you are still graded on a curve. I’ll admit I numbered among the haters who couldn’t stand word limited exams. Sometimes I did well on them and other times I flopped, and I was never able to tell until I got my grade which it was going to be.

8 hour take-home exams are generally just much larger word-limited exams. Again, there are issue-spotter questions and policy questions. Eight hours seems like a long time to be working on an exam but believe me, time never passes so fast as when doing one of these. Usually the emphasis is much more on creating a clear, well organized response than with the 3 hour exams.

The tricky thing about 8 hour exams is that it is tempting to not study much for them, because you have time to look up the law from you case book and notes. However, doing moderate preparation is probably optimal. At the very least, you want a helpful outline to tell you where stuff is.

What Do You Do To Study For Exams?

This varies person to person, but most people do some from of outlining- where they compile class notes and “black letter law” (statements of what the law is, often actual holdings from the cases read) into an outline organized by topic. There are many different outlining approaches under the sun, but most people agree that the important reason to make an outline is that it helps you absorb the material.

Some students also re-read a significant number of the cases, as well as consult commercial outlines and supplements. Supplements vary in depth, but generally attempt to describe the black letter law for students so that they can spend less time on that and more time studying the fuzzier theoretical stuff learned in class. A lot of law students favor the popular Examples and Explanations series, which present the material much as you’ll see it on a test. Checking out one of these on a 1L subject like Civil Procedure may be worthwhile in summer leading up to your 1L year.

Surviving Exams

Like velociraptors, law school exams travel in packs. One of them alone might be manageable but it doesn’t happen that way. Budgeting your time properly is really the best thing you can do to make sure that you don’t come up short on exams. Check out our post on “how hard is law school” for a longer discussion of how much work this entails.

The other big problem is that you might come in to law school with absolutely no idea how to do these damn things. By the time you have figured it out, you often have half your 1L grades.

The well regarded book Getting to Maybe is often prescribed to help you get a head start on your peers, and I seriously recommend checking it out. Everyone entering law school is a babe in woods. This book might help you get out more quickly than the others.


1 Comment

  1. I’ve often read on TLS that grades in law school are totally random/ unpredictable. Although I could concede that one cannot predict one’s cohort and thus, the curve, I find it hard to believe that the students who are at the top of their class (top 10%) have gotten consistently lucky in all their courses.

    The people who say that success in law school is random/ unpredictable rarely ever follow with: despite gunning as an 0L (E&Es, GTM, LEEWS), studying hard and smart, outlining early, memorizing my outline, and taking numerous practice tests, I still fell in the middle of the pack.

    Am I being a naive 0L who has yet to be burned by the curse of the curve?

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