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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Predicting the Content of Law School Exams

Writing outlines, reviewing notes, and doing practice exams are all useful ways to prepare for final exams in law school.  But nothing compares to reading the prompt on an exam and realizing you have read the case or news story on which the exam is based.  Knowing the fact pattern and the important issues of your exam beforehand will greatly reduce the surprise/panic of the exam environment, and enable you to spot the smaller facts and issues that the professor hides beneath the obvious points.

I am not being purely theoretical here -- at least one exam I took last year had a question based on a case I had read for another class.  My answer to that question was particularly thorough, and my confidence on the exam as a whole was greatly increased.  I also have a decent track record when it comes to attempting to predict the subjects of exams.  Last semester, I successfully predicted at least two of the issues involved in two different exams (and I would have correctly predicted the content of a third exam had anybody in that class asked me to speculate).  My predictions were based on the strategies that I discuss in this post.

Here, I provide some tactics students can use to predict the types of fact patterns that you will encounter on a law school exam.  Of course, these strategies will be most useful if the exam will be formatted as an issue-spotter exam based on a set of facts that the professor provides.  But taking these steps will help students understand a class's subject matter at a deeper level, and apply the law to new fact patterns, and this type of studying will likely help prepare students for any exam.

As an aside, students should consider taking these steps in any areas of law where they have a particular interest -- I have found that these steps are a good way to engage in an area of law, and to pinpoint important issues that have yet to be resolved, and cases that may end up having significant impacts.

Finding Fact Patterns that may be on the Exam
  • Pay Attention to Relevant News Stories
If you read a newspaper or watch the news regularly, look for reports on cases (at both the trial and appellate level) that involve legal issues from your class. Cases that garner attention from national news sources are likely to be cases your professor has also heard of, and may be interesting enough to warrant inclusion as the basis for a fact pattern.
  • Targeted Reading of Law Blogs
While I recommend that you read law blogs in general (I may be biased on this), when trying to predict exams, you should target law blogs that tend to focus on the subject matter of your class. Additionally, you may want to focus on posts that are written by professors, since any case, story, or issue that is discussed is one that caught at least one professor’s attention. If your professor has a blog, READ IT.
  • Use Twitter
As some of my previous posts have revealed, I have begun using Twitter, and I have found it to be an excellent source for news.  By carefully tailoring the types of accounts you follow, you can make your Twitter feed into a constant source of relevant cases and fact patterns (for class, or for your own interests).  Consider following the Twitter accounts of professors or commentators who tweet often on cases or stories that are relevant to classes you are in. If your professor has a Twitter account, FOLLOW IT.
  • Above All, Look For Multifaceted Cases
Some cases in the news or blogosphere may have interesting facts or have important policy implications. But the cases to focus on are those that involve multiple dimensions of a single area of law. For example, when Duck Dynasty star, Phil Robertson was suspended by A&E for making homophobic comments, many commentators claimed his First Amendment rights had been violated, and this argument was reported repeatedly by news outlets. But this case was not particularly interesting from an academic perspective: A&E was a private company and therefore was not restricted by the First Amendment. A more interesting First Amendment case (like this one) would be one that would involve content-based restriction allegations, viewpoint discrimination, public or private speech, and other issues all at once.

What to Do About These Fact Patterns
  • Take Note of Them in Some Way
Consider making a note of the case or story somewhere in your notes, post it to Facebook or Twitter, or do something that goes beyond simply reading and skimming an article or blog post. Noting the case down may help it stick better in your memory, as may any discussion that your post on the case might generate. This is the most minimal, and least time-intensive way to treat cases and stories that might end up being the basis for exam fact patterns.
  • Note Unfamiliar Reactions
If you do not have time to carry out your own independent analysis of the issues in the cases and stories you find, take note of any reactions or analysis that commentators have to the case or story that would not have immediately jumped to your mind. Your immediate reaction will likely be something you think of to include in your answer on the exam. But noting down commentary and arguments that are not entirely obvious to you will make it more likely that you will give the fact pattern a full treatment in your answer.
  • Include the Cases in Your Outline or Notes
If you find a case or story that is related to a particular part of the doctrine your class has covered, consider adding it into your outline or notes as a hypothetical situation where you apply that area of the doctrine in the context of that case’s facts. Even if that story or case is not ultimately the basis for the final exam, this will still give you practice applying the law you have learned to a different set of facts.
  • Write Your Own Analysis of the Cases
If you find a case or story that seems particularly interesting, and that has gained a decent amount of attention from the right sorts of people, you may want to write out your own analysis of the case, where you list the issues and the arguments for and against various outcomes. Consider blogging about it, if you are one of those peculiar students who blogs about the law. This is the most in-depth and time consuming approach to a case that you find, but if the issues involved in the case are good enough, it can be good practice for an issue-spotter exam. This also may be a good approach to take if your professor has not made many practice exams available for you.  And if you happen to be lucky enough that the fact pattern ends up being the basis of the exam, you will be extremely happy that you did a full analysis of the facts beforehand.

This approach may not be for everybody.  Those who do not read the news very often or who are not interested in reading law blogs may not find this approach to exams appealing.  And it would certainly be unwise to put all of one's stock in hoping to predict the subject matter of an exam, rather than developing an outline or synthesizing notes.

But students should consider taking these steps in order to develop a deeper understanding of the law that they cover in their classes (or in areas of law they are simply interested in).  There is always the possibility that following these steps will reveal the content of the final exam.  While this possibility may be small -- the payout in the event of a successful prediction can be massive.

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