Taking Law School Exams: Ask the Right Questions, Don’t Worry About the “Right” Answer

TricycleLet’s talk about how to analyze a sample law school exam question. This fact pattern is super simplified, on purpose.

As we’ll see, the key is asking and exploring the right questions, not arriving at the “right” answers.

The Question

The Town of Townie has an ordinance, Town Law 1.34, that reads as follows:

All vehicles are prohibited in public parks within the city limits of Townie, unless they are in designated parking areas.

Charlie, a three-year old child, is riding his tricycle along a path in City Glade, a public park in downtown Townie, supervised by his seventeen-year old babysitter, Betsy. He’s severely injured when a police horse, ridden by Officer Smith, tramples him. Luckily, his life is saved when EMT (emergency medical technician) Elvis arrives with an ambulance and transports him to the nearby Townie General Hospital.

Question: Who is in violation of Townie ordinance 1.34?

The Analysis
Step One: What Did the Question Ask Us to Analyze?

This step is absolutely critical, as even a very simple fact pattern like this one can cause you to go completely off the rails if you answer the wrong question.

Here, the question is not necessarily what you’d expect — it’s who is potentially in violation of the town ordinance that prohibits vehicles in the park. It’s NOT who is liable for poor Charlie’s injuries. While that may be an interesting question to explore, it’s not what we were asked to discuss. It’s also much broader, so, if we try to answer it, we’ll inevitably run out of time and bomb this question (and potentially the rest of the exam).

Always take a deep breath before you start writing, and be absolutely sure you know what you’ve been asked to analyze.

Your task is to answer the question your professor asked, not some other question you made up!

Step Two: What Do We Know?

Well, we know there’s an ordinance that might have been violated, and we know the text of the ordinance.

Let’s look carefully at the text, so we can figure out what the issues are:

All vehicles are prohibited in public parks within the city limits of Townie, unless they are in designated parking areas.

What does someone have to do to violate this ordinace?

  1. be in a public park
  2. in the city limits of Townie
  3. with a vehicle
  4. outside of a designated parking area

Okay, seems straightforward enough. Who might be in violation?

  1. Charlie
  2. Betsy
  3. Officer Smith
  4. EMT Elvis

(At this point, we’re not evaluating whether these people are in violation, just making a list of anyone who could plausibly be in violation.)

I’d add Charlie’s parents to this list, to be complete. Even if they weren’t in the park, you might be able to argue they’re responsible for his behavior, if he indeed violated the ordinance.

Let’s start checking elements off, based on the facts we were given.

  1. Were any of these people in a public park? Yes, all of them were (except Charlie’s parents). The question specifically tells us this.
  2. Was the park in the city limits? It appear so, because we’re told the park is downtown, but we should acknowledge making a slight assumption here. (This is not something to spend much time discussing, but it can’t hurt to mention it in passing.)
  3. Was anyone in a vehicle? Here’s where the question gets interesting, since everyone except Betsy was arguably using a vehicle. Is a tricycle a “vehicle”? Is a horse a “vehicle”? Is an ambulance a “vehicle”? This discussion will comprise the bulk of our answer.
  4. Was the vehicle outside of a designated parking area? We’re told that Charlie was on a “path” when he was injured. This suggests that he wasn’t in a designated parking area, but, again, we can’t be 100% sure about this without more information. We’ll mention in passing that the path could be a “designated parking area” but it seems unlikely, given that parking areas are generally separated from the pathways in a park.
Step Three: Where’s the Ambiguity?

At this point, we’ve got the roadmap for our answer. We’ve identified everyone who might plausibly be in violation of the ordinance, and we’ve started to sort out which questions are difficult and which are trivial.

It’s time to engage with the ambiguity.

Most people are nervous around ambiguity. They don’t like it, and they don’t know how to handle it. It’s very, very tempting to ignore ambiguity and write down an “answer.”

On a law school exam, this is a HUGE mistake. The entire purpose of a law school exam is to explore the ambiguities, in a logical and well-reasoned manner.

So, in this case, our answer will briefly list the elements of the town ordinance, list the potential violators, and say that all of the potential violators we identified (except for Charlie’s parents) were in a public park, in the city limits of Townie, outside of a designated parking area. Very briefly, we can mention that there’s a bit of ambiguity in the “city limits” and “designated parking area” elements, but not enough to spend major amounts of time on. We can also briefly note that Betsy herself wasn’t in a vehicle, so she’s almost certainly not in violation of the ordinance.

Having gotten this introductory analysis out of the way, we can dig into the real meat of the issue:

What constitutes a “vehicle” under the ordinance?

Frankly, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to answer this question in a definitive manner, but that’s fine. In fact, it’s exactly what the question is designed for!

Step Four: Exploring the Arguments

Let’s start with Charlie. He’s riding his tricycle down a path in the park. Is the tricycle a “vehicle”?

The arguments in favor:

  1. It has wheels
  2. It’s transporting him faster than he could walk
  3. He believes he’s driving a car

The arguments against:

  1. It’s a child’s toy
  2. It only moves because he exerts effort and pedals
  3. He’s too young to drive a real vehicle
  4. It’s absurd to forbid children from playing with their toys in the park
  5. He’s unlikely to hurt anyone if he runs into them

I’m sure you can come up with lots of other reasons his tricycle is, or isn’t, a “vehicle” under the ordinance. As you brainstorm arguments for and arguments against, you’ll eventually start identifying the contours of what you think likely constitutes a “vehicle” under the ordinance (something like a car or truck, something which is dangerous to others, etc.).

The analysis of whether the police horse is a “vehicle” isn’t so different from the tricycle analysis, so we won’t spend a ton of time on that, other than to point out where it’s similar to, and different from, the tricycle analysis.

The next interesting question is whether the ambulance is a “vehicle” under the ordinance. Clearly, the ambulance is a “vehicle” in the literal sense — no one would dispute that it’s motorized, has wheels, could injure someone, etc. But is it the type of vehicle the ordinance is designed to capture?

There’s nothing in the ordinance itself allowing emergency vehicles to drive in the park, but there’s a strong argument that it would be absurd not to allow them. (If the purpose of the ordinance is to protect public safety, surely you’d want an exception to allow ambulances to come in and save small children from certain death?)

You can see here two different types of ambiguity:

  1. Is the item at issue literally a “vehicle”? This applies to the tricycle and the horse — it’s arguable whether either of them falls into the “vehicle” category at all.
  2. Is there an implied, or explicit, exception? This applies to the ambulance — although it clearly falls into the “vehicle” category, there’s an argument that it shouldn’t be included for other reasons.
The Bottom Line

As you can see from even this simple fact pattern, things can get complicated quickly.

The key is to take things one step at a time, and to engage with the ambiguity! That’s where the interesting questions, and most of the exam’s points, reside.

Your goal isn’t to arrive at a definitive answer — it’s to fully explore the contours of the problem, making judgments along the way about what’s important, and what’s not.

Do that, and you’ll be well on your way to being a competent lawyer (and you’ll probably pick up some decent law school grades along the way).

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  1. An important aspect of studying is looking at and practicing with past exams.
    This site has many recently administered law exams including contracts, torts, and real property.

    • I’m definitely a fan of practice exams! Getting them from your own professor is ideal, but more general versions can be helpful if that’s not possible. Thanks for the link!

  2. Excellent article, Alison!! Thank you so much! I just learned more about taking a law exam in this one brief read than I’ve gotten anywhere else for such a minimal investment of time. I stampeded straight to the ambiguity of the horse and the obvious vehicular character of the ambulance, but in my haste, I overlooked the consideration of the tricycle. I’ve GOT to stop racing to conclusions.

    On a go-forward basis, I am going to embrace the ambiguities and Slow Down A Bit. I jump to conclusions much too fast sometimes, as here. Though I’m doing well in law school, I know that failing to fully analyze all ambiguous aspects of the fact pattern is costing me points on my exams.

    Thank you for a great lesson!

    • You’re welcome. It’s definitely a learned skill, so just pay attention and keep at it, and I’m sure you’ll be on top of things in no time.

      A friend of mine once got an interview question about what he’d learned so far in law school His answer: Read more slowly. Not sure it was the answer the interviewer was expecting, but it was well received!

  3. Unfortunately, some professors don’t ask a question. I’ve had quite a few exams in which the professor simply gives the fact pattern and then the only prompt is: “Analyze.” What then? Any suggestions?

    • Right, those can be a pain. At that point, you have to create your own structure, which is definitely more challenging. So, you might reframe the question (in your mind) as “Analyze the possible claims and defenses of the parties.” That gives you more of a starting point, because it gives you some questions to ask yourself.

      So, “Is there any reason Person X would be liable for anything? Do they have a claim against anyone else?” and so on. If you go through everyone in the fact pattern, one-by-one, hopefully it will start to become apparent what the basic claims are. Then you move on to the basic defenses, etc. (This is where a two-page checklist of the key legal issues in the course really comes in handy, because it can jog your mind and give you ideas for possible claims/defenses.)

      After you have the structure, you can treat it like any other question, and just work through the analysis point-by-point, using headers and such to keep things moving.

      But, yeah, it’s definitely annoying because there’s always the paranoia that you’re missing something critical.

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