Steps to Take After a Final Exam Part 1


Part of being a successful person is to learn from your mistakes and to take steps on improving.  Unless you got the highest grade on an exam, you should find out how you could have done better.  This means going to your professor and asking for advice on how you could have done better on your law school essay exam.

Another reason to ask to see your exam and meet with your professor is in case the professor made any errors.  At almost every law school professors cannot change grades for errors in their judgment, such as failing to award 10 points instead of 8 points.  But there are times when the professor made a simple math mistake or just wrote down the wrong number in the computer–this is more common than you might think.

Many students fail to seek meetings with their professors because they erroneously believe that they just did not “get” the material.  That may be true occasionally, but in most cases law students have not mastered the art of writing a law school exam.  So go and talk to your professor and find out what you did wrong so that you can learn, and then improve.


Overcome Mental Roadblocks


We’ve all reached that point where we just can’t study any longer because we have been studying too long.  Some people just keep reading, even though their brain stopped working hours before.  What you need is a mental reboot, so just stop and go do something else for a couple of hours.  Make sure that whatever you do is completely unrelated to what you’ve been studying.  For many that might be going to the movies or out for some exercise.  When you complete your two hours away from studying you will find that you can continue studying.


Law School Exam Grading


Law school exam grading is one of the least transparent aspects of the law school experience. A student takes an exam and then weeks or months later gets a grade. But most students will never know why they received a particular grade, and almost certainly will never receive feedback on what they can do to improve.

Many law professors don’t provide good feedback for several reasons.  First, many are not rewarded by their law schools become good teachers (i.e., meet with students to help them do better). Most law schools reward professors that write scholarly articles that get published in top journals, and for many professors that means spending time writing and not helping students. A friend of mine was visiting at a top 50 law school a few years ago and he shared this story with me. His office was next to a faculty member who was always busy writing.  This faculty member always kept his door closed and locked, so when students came by and knocked on the door, the students were ignored–even though the faculty member was inside his office and the students desperately needed to talk to him. This faculty member understood that his top 50 law school rewarded scholarship over teaching.  While this story is disturbing, it is all too common at many law schools.

Another reason that professors don’t provide meaningful feedback is because the professor hasn’t spent the time learning how to provide good feedback.  For almost every law professor, me included, grading is the least desirable part of the job–who really wants to grade a hundred essays in three weeks. This means that many professors use checklists in assigning grades.  For example, a professor grading a 4th Amendment exam might have something like this on her spreadsheet:  Police are legally allowed to observe Joe on public street (2 points); Police may stop Joe and ask him a quick question (3 points); Police may pat down Joe for weapons (5 points).  And with that checklist, if you are ever allowed to see it, you see that you got 2 points, 2 points, and 3 points.  But that kind of information is almost worthless because you don’t know WHY the professor assigned those points to you.  Suppose that you do meet with your professor and you ask her why she gave you 3 points for an issue, you are likely going to get a response like this: “you need to have a stronger rule statement and your analysis could have been stronger.” That is a conclusion that does not really help you for the next exam, and you are likely to continue making the same errors on future exams.

What every law student needs is meaningful feedback and a plan to improve.  From day one I have worked hard at trying to help students improve, but I did a poor job during my first few years of teaching.  At first, I would meet with students for about half an hour and go through their exam with them, line by line. That sounds good, but it didn’t work.  Then I had shorter meetings and provided students with resources to improve, and that didn’t work either.  Over the last few years I came to realize that students don’t improve because they don’t really understand what law school essay exams are really about.  Most students believe that an essay exam grade is based on their understanding of the material. That is a profound misunderstanding of the law school essay exam!  After meeting with many students, especially those that got the lowest grades, I came to realize that they knew the material.  If I had given them an oral exam they would have received high grades, not low grades. What this taught me is that students don’t know HOW to write an answer in a manner that makes sense to law professors and bar exam graders.  Based on my understanding I changed my approach to providing feedback.

Now when I provide feedback, my goal is to help students become self-reflective learners, which will allow them to see the patterns embedded in a law school or bar essay exam.  Let me tell you about Henry (not his real name), who was in the first group of students that I worked with using my self-reflection method.  Henry got one of the lowest grades on the midterm exam.  He was devastated and came to me for help as he did not understand how he could have received this low grade.  Rather than telling him what he did wrong, I provided him with some tools so that he could use to self-diagnose his midterm exam. He then spent hours using those tools, and on the final exam received the second highest grade in the class. That was an epiphany for me, and proved the old saying:  give a person a fish, they eat for a day; but, teach them to fish then they eat for a lifetime.

What this means is that you can significantly improve your writing if you stop expecting line-by-line debriefs of your essay answers and instead learn to become a self-reflective learner.  It’s hard at first because most students have never done it. It’s also time consuming, which stops many students because they don’t see the value behind the method. But once you go down this path it will help you become a better writer and thinker.  For more information on this method please check out the exam section of the website.


IRAC Writing Method


The IRAC method is the most popular organizational method used on law school exams, with IRAC standing for Issue, Rule, Analysis (or Application), and Conclusion. Without a solid organizational system, students miss issues and fail to do the kind of deep analysis that law professors are looking for.  Having graded thousands of law exams I can tell you that no student has ever gotten an “A” without good organization skills.  In the video below I explain how the method works.

Please keep in mind that IRAC, as good as it is, will not move you into the “A” category unless you also have a strong command of the subject matter.  Unfortunately, there are students that earn D’s and F’s while using the IRAC method. In other words, IRAC is not a panacea that does the heavy lifting on an exam.  So yes, use IRAC as a formatting tool and then work hard on Issue spotting and Analysis so that you can get the “A” grades you want.