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Study Aids, Strategies & Exam Prep: Taking the Exam

During the Exam

Time

Take time to organize. If the exam includes suggested time limits for a question, follow that suggestion. If more time is allotted to a question, it probably has more issues and is worth more points. You can only get so many points per question, so do not spend more time on a question than suggested. Save time by not restating the facts (unless it's in the context of how the law applies to the facts) or the professor's jokes. Don't raise issues not suggested by the facts. And, don't discuss exceptions which do not apply.

Be especially mindful of time limits in an open book exam. It's easy to keep looking for the answer, thinking that it must be there in the materials that you brought into the room. If you haven't finished an answer in the allotted time, stop looking for it and move on. A constant search will only frustrate you and cause you to lose points.

IRAC

By and large, the key to doing well on the typical law school issue-spotting, fact pattern essay exam is to understand and apply IRAC. IRAC, in short, stands for issue, rule, application and conclusion. You must spot the issue, articulate the legal rule, apply the rule to the facts, and reach a conclusion.

Remember:

  • You must see both sides of an issue, like any lawyer must. There are arguments that can be made on both sides, and, in an exam, you generally have to make them.
  • Think like a lawyer with a client with a problem, and the client wants an objective analysis of the facts.
  • Explain why and how you reach the conclusions that you do.
  • Show your reasoning based on the law and policy and the application of your facts to the law.
  • Address every genuine issue that the facts raise, even if you think that your analysis of that issue would make the others moot.
  • Don't ignore issues because you think they are too obvious. For example, in torts, don't omit a discussion of a defendant's duty to plaintiff because you can't believe the professor wants you to discuss the obvious. The professor wants you to discuss all non-frivolous issues. You may dispose of the matter in a line or two, but let the reader know that you recognize the issue.
  • If you feel that you must assume an additional fact when answering the question, state what that additional fact is. But, be careful about doing this. Generally, the facts that you need are already in the fact pattern.
  • It cannot be stated enough how important it is to apply the facts to the law. You should interweave the elements of the rule(s) with key facts, applying appropriate legal principle and policy. Show which facts support and prevent application of the rule. Step by step. Element by element. The important questions to ask yourself are: Are the facts sufficient to establish each element of the rule? Which elements will be disputed?

Step-by-Step Approach

There are variants to this approach, but it provides a basic organizational scheme.

1. Start by reading the question from beginning to end without using a pen. Get the big picture first. As you read, think that you will be writing to  someone who knows nothing about the topic, although you will be writing for your professor, who knows "everything" about the topic. Follow directions and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do

 

2. Go back and read the question again. This time, pick up your pen. Underline the facts, words or phrases that cause you to think about legal issues. Make notes in the margin, if you want, as issues start jumping out at you.

  • There is usually a great deal of information in an exam fact pattern. Every sentence or word may be significant. Ask yourself, why is this fact included? What is its significance? Every fact may mean something. Consider these particularly:

  • Dates

    • Why this date? If an exam question begins, "On January 28, 1999....", think about the significance of the date. Is there a statute of limitations problem?

  • Relationships

    • Does the fact pattern include a husband and wife? Look for a marital relationship issue. Is one party's age mentioned? Look for an issue concerning infancy or capacity.

  • Descriptive words

    • Every adverb and adjective is potentially significant. Do the events occur at a particular time of day, and is that significant? Are weather conditions mentioned? If so, why?

3. Read the question a third time. As you do, start making a list on scratch paper of all the issues you see in the question. Leave plenty of black space between the issues. When you see a fact that is relevant to a particular issue, note that fact under the issue in your list of issues.

  • One way of identifying issues is to organize the facts (the facts you underlined in step 2) into separate transactions or events. Each transaction or event can present a problem that must be resolved. You can consider these problems that must be resolved to be issues.

     

4. Look at each issue you just identified in the above step. Write down the rule that's necessary to resolve the issue or answer the question that issue raises in the blank space under that issue. In most instances, you need to know more than the majority rule. Consider including in your answer how the issue would be resolved under the minority view, Restatement, UCC, common law, statutory view, etc.

 

5. Put numbers next to each issue to establish the order in which you will answer the questions. Answer major issues first. If you run out time, you've covered the most important issues in the most depth possible.

 

6. Now you have an outline of your answer. Doing the above steps or something similar may take about 1/3 of the time allotted for that answer. That's fine! You need time to thoroughly analyze and outline an answer. Just leave yourself enough time to write the answer. You must outline, but don't put off writing.

 

7. Start writing, putting the most important issue first, following IRAC for each issue.

     For example:

  • The first issue is whether there was consideration to support Jack's promise to...For a promise to be enforceable, it must be supported by consideration. Consideration is defined in the Restatement as bargained for exchange; benefit/detriment. Here, there appeared to be no bargain because...[apply facts].A court probably would conclude that there is not consideration.

 

If you Run out of Time

Sometimes it happens, despite your best efforts.

  • write an answer to every question, at least outline an answer.
  • Write the outline in your bluebook and/or include the scratch paper that outlines your answer inside the bluebook and refer the professor to the scratch paper.
  • You may receive partial credit for at least recognizing the issues and knowing enough law to outline an answer.