Struggling with Law School Exams? We Talk to a Law Professor for Tips!

Law school professor exam adviceIt’s law school exam time, which means it’s time for a collective law student freakout. Why not take a nice, deep breath and read on for some exam prep tips from Melissa L. Greipp, an Associate Professor of Legal Writing at Marquette Law School? Melissa teaches courses in Legal Analysis, Writing and Research, and Appellate Writing and Advocacy and she’s got some great advice for doing well on exams and studying productively throughout the semester.


It’s exam time at most law schools, and students have one question on their minds: What is my professor looking for? Being only one person, you probably can’t answer definitively, but what DO you think professors are looking for? Are there certain traits or characteristics of a good exam answer, which demonstrate mastery across the board?

First of all, answer the question the professor is asking and give a firm conclusion. State your conclusion upfront. If you have learned a format for legal writing such as CREAC (sometimes referred to as IRAC), use it to organize your answer. CREAC stands for Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Analysis, Conclusion. This form allows you to answer the question in a way that best showcases your knowledge of the law and critical thinking skills.

Second, allocate your time according to the point value of the answer. Before you begin writing, divide the time and stick with it. Answer the larger point value questions first. Make sure you answer all the questions. Don’t miss a question that’s on the back page of the exam.

Third, use proper English, good sentences and paragraphs, punctuation, and grammar. When making fine distinctions in scores, professors may give a higher score to the better written answer. Also be mindful of your penmanship if you are handwriting an answer. If a professor can’t read your handwriting, then how are they supposed to judge the content? Ask a friend if you don’t know whether your handwriting is legible. I didn’t know that my handwriting was hard to read until I got into a law firm, and the administrative staff told me they couldn’t read it. Nice looking handwriting isn’t necessarily legible. If your school allows you to type answers, and you are fast typist, then that option is probably preferable to writing answers by hand.

I’m just finishing up the second semester of law school, and I’m not sure I really “got it.” Can you give me three things to focus on next semester, which you consider most critical to success in law school?

Studying the law is different from most other courses of study, so if you didn’t really “get it” in the first year, then don’t feel like all is lost. It’s normal to feel a bit unsure of your study techniques in your first year of law school.

#1. Know how to study.
One of my law school classmates gave me some great advice about studying that served me well through law school. She told me that every night she worked on adding in the material from that day’s classes into her outlines. She started working on her review outline on the first day of school, so at the end of the semester, she didn’t have to cram at the end of the semester to create an outline.

If you create an outline every day, you’ll likely have a long outline at the end of the semester. My outlines included notes about each case and the key rules from the cases, as well as key points about the rules that we discussed in class. My outlines were about 60 pages long, but then I rewrote the outlines into shorter versions—usually a 20 page outline and then a really short 5 page outline. By the time I had condensed everything down, I knew the material well and could see the forest for the trees.

Working on your outlines every day helps you to review the material as you go along and see relationships between what you are studying one day and the next.

It also helps you to feel in control of your time because you know you’ll have more time at the end of the semester to concentrate on studying the notes you have prepared, not just organizing them.

I also found that reviewing each day helped me to figure out what questions I had about the material, so that I could ask my study partners or professor those questions as I went along. Resolving my questions quickly helped me to piece the information together better.

#2. Know how to read.
Knowing how to read accurately, effectively, and efficiently is also a must in law school. I recommend Reading Like a Lawyer: Time Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert, by Ruth Ann McKinney.

#3. Ask questions.
Ask yourself questions as you are reading your casebooks, as noted in McKinney’s book. Doing so will make you a more engaged reader. Ask questions of your professor or TA if you don’t understand something. Join a study group and ask your study group questions. The more you engage with the material and approach it from different angles, the better you will understand it.

Don’t hesitate to use study guides, but put them into their proper place.

They are there to help, but not substitute for reading the original source material. Ask your professor what he or she is looking for in an assignment or an exam. If your professor gives you a grading rubric, then review it carefully and tailor your work product to those expectations.

 Could you talk a bit about what you do in the average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

I always wanted to teach legal writing—from day one in law school. Legal writing was my first law school class, and I immediately aspired to be a legal writing professor. I had just finished a year of teaching high school English, so the fit was natural.

My other goal was to be a judicial law clerk. After law school, I clerked at an appellate court for a year, and then I practiced as a civil litigator for some years. I truly enjoyed my work as a litigator, and I feel blessed to combine that expertise with the opportunity to teach and work with law students. I am lucky to be able to be a student of sorts too—to get paid to study law, rhetoric, and persuasion. I also continue to do pro bono work. I think it’s important to practice what I preach, so to speak, so I can stay fresh in my teaching.

At Marquette, we do a lot of individual conferencing with students about their writing, so if I am not in class, or preparing for class, I am likely to be conferencing with students about their memos and briefs. I also have the opportunity to work with students on their oral advocacy skills in the appellate writing and advocacy course I teach, as well as in moot court.

Law is a communication field, and so I can’t think of a better way to impact a student’s performance than to help them improve their ability to speak and write.

I also work with our moot court program. Moot court offers practical advocacy training, which helps students to hit the ground running when they enter the legal workforce. I am proud of the strong program we have developed, and I am impressed by the quality of leadership I see from the students on our board who plan and implement a variety of moot court competitions and programs throughout the year. They are learning valuable management skills.

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Thanks, Melissa!

More about Melissa:
Melissa L. Greipp is an Associate Professor of Legal Writing at Marquette Law School, where she teaches courses in Legal Analysis, Writing and Research and Appellate Writing and Advocacy. She also advises the moot court program at Marquette and is the co-chair of the Legal Writing Institute’s moot court committee. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and Marquette Law School.

Her experience prior to teaching at Marquette included a judicial clerkship with the Honorable N. Patrick Crooks of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and private practice as a civil litigator in Milwaukee. Before law school, she was a high school English teacher. At Marquette, she helped to develop the Summer Youth Institute, a weeklong summer program for Milwaukee middle school and high school students to learn about the law.

Read On:

Looking for more law school exam tips and strategies? Check out these posts, or just go to Law School Exams 101.

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  1. […] Professor Greip goes into a good bit of detail on these last three. Read the full article here. […]

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