September 21, 2016

How to Study for Law School Finals with Practice Essays

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Well we're at that weird point in the year where it feels like school just started and yet people are already talking about tests. Even though my professors aren't giving any midterms this semester, we've already started getting ready for finals by going over practice essays. Practice essays in law school are probably as much hand holding as you'll get from a professor. What's great is that they'll usually just give you a question from a previous test and then you know what to expect when your professor goes over them. 

If your professor never gives any practice essays, you might stop by his office hours about a month before class ends and ask if he has old test questions that you could practice with or has a recommended source where you could find similar practice questions. These are super helpful for during your 1L year because you'll feel a lot more prepared if you know what to expect. So, here's what I do with mine!

Timing the essay

Your professor might tell you a recommended time that you spend on your practice essay, but at least for your first effort I wouldn't worry about timing yourself. It's better to get really good at answering these and then picking up your speed rather than trying to do both at once. Another thing I wouldn't worry about on your first attempt is that you have to use your notes to answer it. By this point in the semester you should be making outlines to help your rate of learning exceed your rate of forgetting, but it's not quite time to be pushing yourself to have all of the rules and definitions memorized. 

Spotting the issues

A practice essay will almost certainly be an issue spotter problem because those are by far the most common questions on a law school test. What this means is that you'll probably get a couple of paragraphs over a series of unfortunate events. The hard part actually isn't spotting the issue, the professors practically throw those at you. The hard part is properly analyzing each issue. As I read through the fact pattern the first time, I'll underline each issue that I come across and in the margins make a little note about what issue I think it's talking about. 

Organizing the issues

The essay will most likely not just be one issue, but probably 3-5 related issues. If you don't stay on top of organizing your issues, on test day they're going to get all jumbled together because you get sloppier when you're on a time crunch. Once you have separated your issues out, then it's time to analyze them. There's different ways to decide what order you go in: the order they were presented, grouped by each person and their issue(s), grouped by similar issues, or in the order of your attack outline. It doesn't matter what order you go in, just as long as you pick some form of organization. 

Discussing the issues and rules

This is actually where most 1Ls have the hardest time when they first start out because they overlook obvious points. The easiest way to do this is through, again, organization. Know what's a great way to organize your analysis in a what that your professor will recognize and maybe even prefer? IRAC, my friends!! 

This is super helpful because, for example, it's easy to get in a rush and forget that you need to state the issue because you assume that because the professor wrote the essay that you don't need to restate the obvious, but you do because that's where you can get extra points.

Your professor probably won't be expecting big elaborate introductory and transitional sentences like if this was an essay that you had weeks to do. You literally can just say "The issue here is whether Joe voided his employment contract" and that will be good enough. Then you can go on to the rule by simply saying, "The rule for a voided contract is..." 

Analyzing the issues and rules

This leads you right in to the analysis where you can connect the rule to your fact pattern like,  "A contract is formed when there is offer, acceptance, and consideration. Offer definition/rules... X was the offer in Joe's contract because..." and repeat for the rest of the elements. Then you can mention any exceptions, majority/minority rules, or anything else. 

This is where the attack outline can really help you rake in a lot of easy points. If you get in a rush, you might miss the points that are available because you didn't talk about what's required for a contract before diving in to the issue of was the contract voided. But in my attack outline, I had the elements of a contract so when I used that as a checklist to see what I could put in my analysis, I saw that it was relevant and could throw that in. 

I don't spend too much time trying to include my attack outline into my analysis, but instead use it as a guide/reminder. If I finish the test and have extra time, I'll go back through to see if there are any legal concepts that could be relevant to an issue and I will try to work in a quick discussion about that. 

This might seem like a lot of information to discuss in not a lot of time. That's why it's better to be concise and to-the-point rather than using a bunch of big words trying to sound smart. The more relevant information you can talk about, the more points you'll get. Simple as that. What that means for the curve is that you and the girl next to you could have gotten the same right answers, but if you discussed more you'll most likely get a better grade than her.


The conclusion is usually the least important part of the essay. You still have to have one, but usually the problem is structured so that it goes either way. If it truly could go either way, then you could say something like "If... then Joe did void his employment contract; but, if... then Joe did not void his employment contract." If it's not, then you get to pretend that you're a judge and based on the facts and law that you have, make a decision on which way you sway and explain why. Again this can be as short and sweet as, "Because X Y Z, Joe did void his employment contract." And then you can repeat the IRAC process for the next issue and move on down the line.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, your professors will give you several different practice essays throughout the semester. If you can get this writing process down, it'll help you so much on test day. Although IRAC probably won't be required of you, I do recommend doing it on your essay as a surefire way that you stay organized and talking about the relevant facts. 

As a summary to hopefully make it all clear, this is how I'd organize a practice essay.

I. Issue 1
   A. Issue
   B. Rule
   C. Analysis
      i. attack outline chapters that are relevant to this issue
   D. Conclusion 
II. Issue 2

Also, check out my Finals Posts Round Up post for more tips to help with your finals!