The Rule Dump: #1 Law School Exam Mistake
The rule dump is the number one mistake students make on their law school exams. This is when the student throws out as much information from the course that they can remember, hoping that some of it will stick. Usually the rule dump, also called a brain dump, occurs all on the first page of the essay. Let me explain why professors hate it and why it is hurting your grade.
In college, the best grades go to student answers that have lots of information. This is because most college professors test students on knowledge retention. In other words, if you demonstrate that you read the material you get a good grade. That exam writing style will not work in law school.
Law School Exams
While law school essay exams do require you to know the law, that is only the starting point for a well written essay. Law school exams are testing you on higher level thinking skills. In fact, law school professors grade exams by allocating most of the points to those exams that apply the rules to the facts. So here is what law professors think when they see a rule dump. We start asking ourselves, does this student understand the issue or is the student trying to throw everything they know into the answer because the student is confused. For more information on the levels of learning, you may want to look at this article on Bloom’s Taxonomy from Vanderbilt.
On a business associations exam testing on vicarious liability, the facts clearly state that Mat is an employee. Some students will then provide a rule dump with all of the rules needed to establish that someone is an employee, like the level of control between principal and agent. But none of that was necessary as the facts provided that Mat is an employee.
That leaves me wondering if the student understands the issue or not. And guess what happens when there is uncertainty? Students receive lower grades. It is possible that the student understood the issue, but because the student employed the brain dump method that student ended up with a lower grade. The learning point here is that you should only provide the rules that are needed to answer the question.
Another problem with the brain dump is that you might provide different rules that appear to conflict with each other. This will also cost you points. For example, suppose that you are writing a negligence essay. There are absolutely no facts provided in the question to indicate that the victims are children. Some students will then discuss the attractive nuisance doctrine. This leaves me wondering if the student understands the question or not.
A third problem occurs when the rule that is needed to answer the question is hidden with several superfluous rules. The professor might miss it completely or not appreciate how you wanted that rule applied to the fact pattern.
Keep in mind that law school is a professional school, preparing students to become lawyers and not professors. When you bring your case before a judge, or discuss your case with a partner, that judge or partner only wants to hear about the law relevant to the case—not everything you know about the law. Judges, partners, AND professors are busy people, so only provide the rules you need to answer the question.
Finally, since all exams have some kind of time limit, you are wasting precious time discussing rules that, at best, will be ignored, and at worst, will cost you points.
How to Avoid the Rule Dump
The best way to avoid the rule dump is by using the IRAC Method. This is where you discuss each issue separately: state the Issue, provide the Rule, Analyze the facts, and give your Conclusion. Unfortunately, many students misunderstand how to use the method, so you may want to read my article on Nested IRAC, which explains in detail how use IRAC on a law school essay exam. Before any exam, you need to practice using IRAC. In addition to taking law school exams, incorporate IRAC into your daily class preparation by using the FIRAC Case Briefing Method.
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