Law School Exam Format: How to Use Old Tests to Your Advantage

Before you rush into making a super outline, anticipate the exam format.

  • A closed-book exam requires a simple, blackletter law outline that you can readily memorize in your head.
  • An open-book exam might require an more extensive outline with case holding keyed to a particular issue, and cross-referenced with a Table of Content organized by legal issues.

Look at the practice questions or old exam questions.  Are the exams issue-spotters, short answers, or lengthy multiple-issue fact pattern requiring extensive case planning and legal analysis?

  • Issue spotters: meticulously index your Table of Contents by issue and spend time anticipating what type of legal issues are likely to come up on the exam.  Group the issues that are likely to appear together, and list the black letter laws or case holdings as well as exceptions/limitations, if applicable.
  • Short answers: memorize the key fact patterns and practice writing black letter laws that get straight to the point.  Work on writing short paragraphs explaining how the facts apply to the case at hand and the likely outcome of the case (or strength of the client’s case).
  • Lengthy, multi-issue fact pattern: this requires a lot of imagination and creativity.  Cluster similar cases and/or rules and see if you can create a story that began with one legal issue followed by subsequent legal questions.  Try to solve this story and come up with legal arguments to support your argument and counter legal arguments.  Poke holes at your own theory.

Studying by first year subjects:

  • Civil Procedure – Learn how to apply the FRCP rules in different stages of litigation.
  • Criminal Law – Learn to apply the theories and memorize the criteria (mens rea, actus rea) for various types of crimes such as homicide, larceny, battery, assault, and any applicable excuse or justification (e.g., test for insanity, self defense, emotional distress, defense of others, etc.)
  • Property – Learn the black letter rules of present, future, concurrent estates, landlord/tenant, covenants, equitable servitude, easements, and adverse possession.
  • Constitutional Law – Learn to apply different Constitutional analysis (e.g., Equal Protection, Due Process), tests and standards (e.g., strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, reasonable standard), separation of powers (enumerated powers and limitations of each branch), and federalism.
  • Contracts – Learn to spot the issues in various stages such as formation of contract, party’s rights and responsibilities, mistake, excuse, impossibility, and breach.  Remember the rules governing the parties (minors, incapacitated, deceased, merchants-UCC, consumers), types of contracts (personal service, goods, bilateral, unilateral), special obligations (loyalty, secrets of the trade), and conflicts of law (which state rule governs).  Pay attention to remedies and whether the contract is flawed or unenforceable due to ambiguous language or mistake.
  • Torts – Learn about the black letter laws for intentional torts and negligence.


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[thanks to shelley's case via cc]