A Law School Exam is a Legal Writing Event

Now that it’s getting to crunch time, we’re delighted to have Open Book Team Member Professor Matthew Festa guest-blogging all week with practical and timely advice.

Hello, my name is Matt Festa, and I’m really glad to have the chance to share a few thoughts here at the Open Book blog. I’m a professor at South Texas College of Law, where I focus on Property and related courses. I have been teaching law for five years—so while I may not have been giving exams for as long as some profs, I can offer the perspective of a professor who was actually taking these exams himself not too long ago. I’ll try to post a few observations from that perspective that might be helpful to you. Open Book expresses a lot of the ideas that I have had about law school exams, and it’s a real pleasure to be part of the Open Book Team.

One of the key insights of Open Book is that law school exams are in fact very relevant to the practice of law. IRAC—being given a bunch of facts, spotting the issues, applying the rules to give correct legal advice—is what lawyers do. And this is primarily an act of communication. Nobody is going to pay you to know a lot about the law. They need you to apply it to their problem and help them. Lawyers often communicate orally, but writing is really the coin of the realm. The most silver-tongued courtroom orator will lose if the written briefs weren’t any good. When a junior associate writes a memo—or even an email—for a partner or a client, that is the communication that serves as the foundation of the legal advice. I believe that you should approach your law school exam as a legal writing event.

Does this mean that your essay must have perfect grammar and style, or that you should spend more time with Strunk and White than with the substantive law? Do I take off points for spelling and punctuation? Of course not. But I do believe that many students overlook the larger importance of writing well on exams. What do we mean by writing well? Your audience—a judge, partner, or a professor grading a stack of exams—is going to be a busy person, and she wants to see a well-organized answer that clearly sets forth the issue and applies it to the facts to get to the answer . . . in other words, IRAC. Organization and clarity are keys. Structure, an explanation of the bottom line, transitions—all that stuff you learned in your legal writing class is highly relevant to the exam.

Thinking of an exam as a legal writing event is important because writing is what we do as lawyers, but also because many students fail to appreciate this. They get into the exam, get a little panicky, and start spewing everything they know about the law, instead of answering the question. It’s frustrating to read these answers, because the legal knowledge is in there somewhere, but the product would be of almost no use to a client, partner, or judge.

All of this advice requires some judgment, of course. Don’t sacrifice valuable time trying to make it pretty. This doesn’t mean literary perfection. It’s more about organization, clarity, and structure: an approach that thinks of the exam as a legal writing event will be more likely to produce a cogent, clear, and effective answer. And remember, between two documents (or exams graded on a curve) that are largely similar in substance, the one that’s better-written is likely to win the tiebreaker.

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