In the Belly of the Beast: Writing Exams

AuthorAllan C. Hutchinson
There is nothing quite like law school examinations: they seem to
afflict students in ways that only an imminent visit to the dentist can
come close to repeating. They are both a special form of examination
and a special form of legal writing. Unlike most exams to which you
will be accustomed, law school examinations are not simply about
memorizing large amounts of material and regurgitating them in a
stylish fashion to obtain a good grade. The ability to memorize, recall,
and state the information is a definite and useful talent, but the main
focus of most law exams is on the practical application of that infor-
mation. Having a photographic memory certainly helps, but it will get
you only part of the way. Law school examinations test whether you
understand the material by requiring you to use that material in an
effective and cogent manner. Accordingly, knowing the course and
cases backwards and forwards is a necessary but not sufficient prepa-
ration for examination success. It has to be understood that law
school examinations are not a trivia quiz; they rarely test students’
knowledge of the minutiae or detail of legal judgments and statutes
in the belly of the beast
writing exams
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for their own sake. As such, law school examinations are not about
memory, but about issue-spotting and argument: the examination is
an occasion when students are given a platform to display their abil-
ity to argue persuasively. In this way, law school examinations test the
combination of skills that derive from an effective grasp of legal
sources, legal reasoning, and legal writing.
No two law professors agree on much, least of all the perfect
examination question or answer. Indeed, it is a mistake to imagine
that there are perfect answers. At best, there are better and worse
models of how to approach and answer examination questions.
However, there are certain fundamental skills and insights that you
would do well to learn if you want to succeed at law school examina-
tions. What follows is an attempt to provide you with an appropriate
context of information about examinations so that you will be able to
study and write them with less anxiety and more success. First, I will
introduce the broader context in which evaluation and examinations
take place, and then provide a series of suggestions and tips on how
to study for and write examinations. Although incorporating these
techniques into your array of other studying skills will not assure you
of an A standing, they will assure that you fulfil your potential and be
in the top half of your class. Remember that few people fail exams; it
is simply a question of how well you do.
the broader context
Before addressing the nitty-gritty of preparing for and writing exams,
it is instructive to consider the general and institutional background
against which law school evaluations take place. Although there are
many pedagogic and educational reasons to move beyond the three-
hour, 100 percent examination at the end of the course, most
Canadian law schools rely on this form of evaluation as a major
device for grading students. There is considerable debate around the
whole question of whether there is a need for any grading at all with-
in law schools. After all, you had to do exceptionally well to make it
this far. Whereas some argue that grading systems merely pander to
the legal profession in that they provide a convenient way to sort
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