WSJ: What makes a Good Law School Exam Answer? Top Profs Chime In.

December 7th, 2009

For the benefit of my exam taking friends, check out this article from the WSJ Law Blog that asks top profs what makes a good exam.

Heather Gerken, Yale: A good law exam answer is . . . evaluative. Too often, students walk through each answer as if all arguments are created equal. They don’t tell me which arguments are strong and which are weak, which facts matter and which don’t, which cases provide strong support for their claims and which ones are distinguishable. And they throw everything into the answer rather than think hard about what belongs and what doesn’t. Good lawyers don’t just know the substantive law; they also have good legal judgment. The mistake students make is not to exercise their own legal judgment in answering a question.

Richard Friedman, Michigan: A good law exam answer . . . answers the question. Banal as that sounds, many students take the question as an excuse to write a canned answer on some area in which they’ve learned the black-letter law. I tell my students, “Imagine you’re riding down an elevator with a boss who knows the law and who has told you the facts but wants your help in advising the client. Don’t repeat the facts to him. Don’t tell him the law. Apply the law to the facts.”

Eric Chiappinelli, Creighton: A good law exam answer . . . is one that does more than tells me what the law is (more or less well) and applies the law to the facts (more or less well) and then stops. The other 90 anonymous answers will do that. You should do two additional things: Tell me up front what the question really turns on – a choice between two applicable rules? Deciding what a particular word or phrase should mean? Then, at the end, give me your opinion of whether the result is good or fair or just. Cutting to the heart of a question immediately and expressing a value judgment about the result are what separate the A’s from the C’s.

Paul Secunda: Marquette: A good law exam answer . . . gets to maybe. By that I mean that too many law students have an undergraduate mentality and seek to figure out the one “right” answer for the question. The point of the law school exam is not necessarily to test for right and wrong answers, but to see whether the student is utilizing critical reasoning skills to understand all the possible issues that the question presents. The more you arrive at a “maybe” in your law exam, the more likely you are seeing all the sides of the question in your answer and will then receive the most exam points.”

Adam Winkler, UCLA: A good law exam answer . . . is rigorous and deep. By rigorous, I mean it references every applicable standard, test, and burden; analyzes every appropriate “branch” in the decision tree; and follows a sound logical structure. By deep, I mean it argues — not just concludes — how the legal rules apply to the facts; analogizes and distinguishes the most relevant cases; and addresses the best counterarguments. There is no “right” answer. It’s all about the argument.

Tim Wu, Columbia: A good law exam answer . . . is honest and perceptive. Many law students, when answering exam questions, seem to lose their humanity. They become a sort of law robot, flooding you with pages of 4 factor tests, canned nonsense, and ridiculous results. (Unfortunately, some judicial opinions read that way too.) The good students are more honest in their responses: they hone in on what is actually hard about the problem, and let their instincts drive the answer, with doctrine as their instrument. The very best law students are able to turn the problem around in their mind, almost like a computer rotating a complex shape, and explain how slightly different angles of view create different doctrinal consequences.

Pamela Karlan, Stanford: A good law exam answer . . . is like a poem. Every word is there for a reason. It makes creative arguments within a conventional form. It avoids needless sentimentality but it reflects an author who thinks and cares. I learn something from reading it. And it ends with something other than the word “Time . . . . ”

Update: Professor Horwitz at PrawfsBlawg chimes in here.