4 Common Types of Law School Exams


Brace yourselves, played-out memes about exams are coming.  Sean Bean’s biggest worry may be portraying a convincing death for whatever character he’s playing at the time, but for those of us in law school the big nasty is always going to be exams (or job interviews, which I’d prefer not to talk about at the moment . . . ).  As we’re all scurrying to prepare for exams, here’s a quick and dirty field guide to the most common types of law school exams.

  1. The 2-3 hour Issue Spotter:  The classic law school exam.  Usually involving a plaintiff whose name coincidentally starts with “P” and a defendant whose name happens to start with “D.”  Except in cases where the professor is trying to be exceptionally clever, in which cases the names will either be horrible puns (e.g. “John Fleet” being charged with running from police), evidence that the professor has no life outside of law school (e.g. “Antonin Thomas” and “Clarence Scalia” as co-defendants), or some combination of the two (e.g. “Harold Hand”).  There are two main types of questions on these exams.  The four-paragraph fact-pattern whose answer accounts for less than 20% of the total exam grade and the one-paragraph fact pattern from which you will be expected to pull five-pages of legal analysis responsible for nearly 85% of your final grade.  If your professor is particularly sadistic, the low-value fact patter will appear first, allowing you to panic because your answer isn’t very long and burn a bunch of time before even starting on the more worthwhile question.  The only good thing about an exam like this is that there’s at least a fighting chance that your panicked “spray and pray” method of disgorging your entire 85-page outline into your bluebook will result in a passing grade.
  2. The 24-Hour Take-Home:  The great deception.  I’m sure that some of my commenters will claim that they’ve never had to spend more than an hour on these exams and still managed to graduate at the top of their classes.  This is, of course, completely plausible.  If you graduated from Thomas Cooley.  For those of us at T1 schools, however, the professor’s assertion that the 24-hour take-home exam will allow us to work at a leisurely pace is something that should not be regarded as creating a reliance interest.  In any class with more than 15 students there will be at least one gunner with no concept of a work/life balance who will spend the entire 24 hours working on his exam (these sorts of obnoxious gunners are invariably male).  On their own, it wouldn’t be a problem, but a significant portion of the remainder of the class will panic and spend 12-18 hours on their papers, which starts taking the curve in a bad direction.  No matter how good you are, expect to be putting in at least eight hours on this one.  If it goes poorly, blame your roommates for interrupting.
  3. The 8-Hour Take-Home:  Mostly punishment for anyone who has chosen not to live close to the university.  If you decided not to move from the suburbs back into the city just for law school because your existing house was “close enough” to campus, you have two choices here.  Either you can drive in, pick up the exam, drive home, complete the exam, drive back to campus to drop off the exam, and then head back home again, leaving you with about 6 hours total to work on the exam after accounting for traffic, or you can pray that there’s a study carrel open in the quiet section of the library.  In addition to a lesson in Antitrust Law, you’re also getting a life lesson in unintended consequences.  Fun.  On the positive side, the annoying gunner is limited to eight hours too, which prevents a significant amount of stress.
  4. The 2-3 Hour Short Answer:  The holy grail of law school exams.  I’ve seen one of these in three years.  If you’re really lucky, the professor will even have word limits for the responses.  While this can be absolute torture for the “spray and pray” folks mentioned above, it’s a godsend for people who write succinctly and perpetually worry about not having enough down.  The downside is that the professor will invariably see the targeted short-answer questions as being an excuse to include esoteric points on the exam.  These same points are part of the grading sheets for traditional exams too, but if you don’t see them, they don’t cause stress.  The short-answer exam is a way to call out every little thing you missed in your outline.  Which, since the exam is “just short answer,” you’re probably not allowed to use anyway.

Post image via Shutterstock.

The Northwest 3L spent 6 years in the "real world" cultivating cynicism and a dim view of humanity in the telecom and software consulting industries before deciding that the best way to deal with having zero debt in a down economy was to load up on student loans and truck on off to law school. Asked for a description, his friends replied, "says inappropriate things." Grainy, out-of-focus film footage suggests that he attends law school somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

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