Law School Insider | Exams

Welcome to Law School Insider! This newest installment of our series will feature insights from the PLAS Graduate Assistant & 2nd – year law student about different aspects of the law school experience, highlighting the differences between law school and college over a variety of topics including classes, extracurriculars, finals, and more.

What are legal exams?

Exams at the law school level can vary in structure, but they tend to be issue spotters. An issue spotter provides students with a hypothetical fact pattern, which will read like a fictional story. Students are required to identify all the potential legal issues in the fact pattern, identify and state the relevant legal rules, and apply those rules to the facts presented in the question. Issue spotters are focused on testing whether a student can identify the legal issue and apply the facts accurately to the relevant legal rules and standards. Legal exams can also include multiple choice, policy-based questions, or long essay questions, but these tend to be less common or comprise only a portion of the overall exam. Exams usually make up 100% of a student’s final course grade.

As you have experienced, exams at the undergraduate level can vary quite significantly in how they are administered and how they assess students’ knowledge. Most undergraduate classes also tend to split the final grade between several exams, projects, assignments, presentations, and/or papers. These exams can be in-person or virtual, and they come in a wide variety of styles including multiple choice, short answer, long answer, and more. While law school exams are also diverse, they tend to be more standardized in style than exams at the college level.

Since law exams tend to make up 100% of the final grade, students put significant effort into preparing for exams throughout the semester, and particularly during the final weeks of classes. An extremely common method of studying is outlining. Outlining is the process by which a student will synthesize what they learn through class readings and discussions into a comprehensive understanding of the area of law they are studding. Throughout the semester a law student’s understanding of the legal area being studied grows, learning individual elements/principles that together make up the larger body/area of law. An outline includes writing down all the rules, laws, and important cases that were discussed throughout the semester. Simply put, a completed outline is a comprehensive summary of a topic of law, organized into brief legal principles for quick reference during review or the final exam. Outlines can vary in length depending on their depth, but they tend to be anywhere from 25-50 pages long at their first completed drat. They serve as a great study tool because outlines often help students figure out how the entire content of the class fits together. Though many exams are “closed-note/closed book” (meaning no resources can be used during the exam), many professors will offer “open- note/ open book” exams which allow students to use their outline, class notes, casebook, and/or other materials as a resource during an exam.

Another commonly used tool to study is practice exams. Most law professors will provide students with exams from prior years. These exams can be very helpful in providing students with an example of what the exam questions typically look like. It can also help demonstrate what the professor tends to focus on in exams. Often, professors will also provide model answers from previous students, which can provide an excellent example of what the ideal response looks like. Some professors are even willing to briefly review practice exams to give students pointers on how they can improve.

While midterms are uncommon, some professors give midterms for a small percentage of the final grade or as an ungraded midterm to help students check their understanding. These can be another great tool to understand how the professor writes their exams and how the professor wants students to answer the questions.

Furthermore, just like undergrad, law professors have office hours. These are a great opportunity to talk with the professor about concepts you did not fully understand in class. It is also a great way to get to know the professors and build a relationship with them beyond the classroom. Many professors also hire Teaching Assistants to assist students. TAs generally offer office hours or review sessions for students.

Finally, many students form study groups during the semester to keep themselves accountable and bounce questions off one another. While each study group looks different, students will often compare answers on practice exams, share outlines, or review content together.

Generally speaking, most law exams are taken in person and on a computer. The most common exam type is an issue spotter, but there is a lot of diversity in the type of exam. Law exams tend to be longer, most commonly being 3-4 hours long. Some exams are take-home and maybe 6-8 hour or 24 hours exams. These longer exams tend to give students much more time to articulate a well-thought-out response, while shorter exams focus on how many legal issues a student can pick out of the prompt in the short time allocated.