By Eleanor Clerc
In law school, most of your exams, whether multiple choice or essays, will make heavy use of fact-intensive hypotheticals (“hypos”). These hypos are specifically built to test your ability to appreciate the legal significance of specific facts. Although analyzing the facts in front of you and correctly applying the appropriate law is at the heart of law school exams, many students lose points because they focus too much on the law. This sounds counter-intuitive but hear me out.
Law school is structured in such a way that, come finals, students are often most concerned with trying to commit cases to memory and zealously studying the law itself. However, effective factual analysis, often overlooked, is crucial to acing your exams. Although we can’t teach our system for taking legal exams here, below are some general tips for how to level up your factual analysis come exam day.
First, it’s important to carefully read what your professor is asking you to do, otherwise known as the “call of the question.” This may greatly influence how you read the facts. Are you directed to limit your analysis to a specific issue or broadly analyze all issues raised by the facts? Are you asked to argue one side? Are you supposed to determine how a court in a specific jurisdiction may rule? Are you simply being asked to advise a client? Knowing what your goal is will help you determine which facts to use and how to frame them to your advantage.
Many students are surprised at just how carefully professors expect you to read the fact pattern. Don’t rush this step by writing down all the law you know on that subject as soon as you see the first factual trigger, because you risk missing important nuances or making assumptions you probably shouldn’t. As you read, try categorizing any fact into one of three categories: Background facts, Red Herrings, and Legally Relevant/Important facts. For more on these categories, check out our other post on facts here. For each fact, ask yourself – why did my professor include this fact? How does this fact affect the overall legal issue?
After you’ve read the facts and properly disregarded any red herrings, spend some time outlining the relevant law and how it applies to the facts at hand. Don’t fall into the common pitfall of only regurgitating the relevant law without closely tying it to the facts your professor gave you. This isn’t to say knowing the law isn’t important – it definitely is. But it is marrying the facts and the law where students get the most points. Catching a subtle nuance in the facts and addressing how it is or is not like the law you’ve learned will allow you to pick up those extra much-needed points on an exam.
Through careful reading and thorough treatment of the facts on any hypo-based exam, you can maximize your chance of “beating the curve.” Remember that analyzing facts and using them to prepare an insightful response is a teachable skill like any other and one that improves with practice. While you should be outlining to capture and distill the law you’ve learned, you should also be practicing on mock exams. As you spend much of your time learning the law, remember that legal test-taking skills are just as important for getting good grades and they similarly require your time. When you can say that you know the law and know how to take hypos efficiently and effectively, you’re ready for finals!