Taking Law School Exams the 80/20 Way

80/20It’s a truism of life, with a great deal of truth, that 80% of your results in anything come from 20% of your effort. I have absolute certainty that this is the case with law school exams.

What do I mean by this? Let’s discuss.

The Standard Approach

The average law student prepares for exams by some combination of the following:

  • going to class
  • reading the cases
  • making an outline
  • reviewing with their study group
  • looking at a hornbook/commercial outline
  • taking a practice exam or two

Which of these things are most time consuming? Which make the most difference for exam performance?

This might be a bit controversial, but it’s obvious to me that the most time-consuming aspects of the list are doing all the reading and going to class. Are these the things that correlate most closely with exam success?

Call me crazy, but I’m going with NO. 

Consolidating your knowledge and doing practice exams are far more important.

80% of Your Time Will Hardly Impact Your Grades

Am I saying you shouldn’t bother doing the reading or going to class? No, those things are basically useful.

But it’s critical to understand that reading and going to class regularly aren’t sufficient, even though they take 80% of your time.

The harsh reality is that your exam performance will largely depend on what you do in the last couple of weeks of the semester, not what you did in the prior several months.

If you’re patting yourself on the back for never missing a class and reading every single page you were assigned, STOP! There’s no gold star for attendance or trying hard. You have to actually perform.

Make the Remaining 20% of Your Effort Count

To do well on a law school exam, you need to be able to do two things:

  1. Apply the law you learned to a novel set of facts
  2. Write your answer convincingly

That’s pretty much it. (Maybe there’s a policy question, but that’s essentially an application of #2.)

What’s going to help you do these things?

  1. Organizing your understanding of the law very succinctly
  2. Practicing in the form you’ll be tested in
Use Checklists and Flowcharts for Succinct Organization

How should you go about organizing your thoughts succinctly? I recommend using either a flowchart or a checklist. In either case, the entire course should fit on a few sheets of paper — any longer, and it’s pointless.

Say you’re studying personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure and you’re reviewing Rule 4(k)(2). (This happens to be my favorite FRCP. Yes, I’m a dork and I have a favorite Rule of Civil Procedure.)

Here’s what the checklist version would look like:

FRCP 4(k)(2): applies when a foreigner doesn’t have minimum contacts with any particular state sufficient to establish personal jurisdiction in the state, but has sufficient contacts with the country as a whole that it’s not unfair to subject them to jurisdiction. Facts that trigger: foreign litigant, limited contact with any particular state, extensive contact with the US in general

(Do not quote me on this — I’m doing this off the top of my head and it’s been a while, but you get the idea.)

Here’s what the flowchart version would look like:

Is there a foreign litigant involved? Yes.
Does the foreign litigant have extensive contacts with any particular state? No.
Does the foreign litigant have extensive contacts with the US as a whole? Yes.
–> FRCP 4(k)(2) may apply

It’s up to you which version you use (and the best technique may vary between classes), but doing something like this, even though it doesn’t take tons of time, will pay huge dividends.

Why This Approach is Useful

For one thing, it forces you to slow down and acknowledge where your understanding is lacking. (When I checked the Federal Rules to make sure I was citing the right section, for example, I noticed that part B of the Rule just says jurisdiction has to be constitutional. If I were really making my checklist/flowchart, I’d want to include a source or test to apply regarding when exercising jurisdiction based on contacts with the US as a whole is constitutional.)

More importantly, it forces you to focus on the 20% of the information that’s most critical to your performance. In any class, there’s a basic structure you MUST understand to have any chance of evaluating a fact pattern. Then there’s all the other stuff.

Obviously in a perfect world you’d know every single detail of every single case. But that’s not going to happen.

You’re better off focusing your attention on the really core elements of the law (and any details your professor considered particularly important) and letting the concurring opinions, the dissents, etc. slide.

If you can condense the course down to only a few sheets of paper, chances are you’ve honed in on the critical elements you need to know.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you’re at the point of a condensed checklist/flowchart, you’re definitely ready to take practice exams. Even if you’re not yet at this point, however, you should still take practice exams. Why? Because they help teach you what’s important.

If there’s one mistake most law students make, it’s to postpone practice exams until they feel “ready.”

Newsflash: You’re never going to feel ready. But you have to do it anyway.

If you wait until you feel ready, you’ll either never do any practice exams (most people, I’d guess) or you’ll do one the day before the exam, completely freak out because you messed it up, and be in a terrible mindset when you go into the exam.

Taking practice exams is the essence of the 80/20 rule. It’s not actually that time consuming, but it can make a huge difference in your performance.

Again, this might be controversial, but I’m convinced that a student who’s learned how to take a law school exam could do fine on any open book exam with a couple of days of study time. No case reading, no class time, etc.

I’m not saying they’d get an A+, but their grade would be above average. Why? Because law school exams reward clear thinking and organized, concise writing, and, once you’ve learned to do those things, you can analyze any legal problem convincingly (even if you barely know what you’re talking about).

There’s no better way to learn to write a great law school exam answer than by doing it (and critically examining your answer afterwards to see where it could be better).

Even if you feel reluctant (especially if you feel reluctant), do a practice question today. Then do more tomorrow, and more the day after. If there’s something you don’t know, add it to your checklist or flowchart.

You can keep studying your outlines and trying to learn every detail when you’re not taking practice exams, but, I promise you, the time you spend practicing will be exponentially more valuable than anything else you could do at this point.

Good luck!

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