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Sally can’t argue that (on law school exams)

At most law schools, first year students get back their fall semester grades this week.  This can be a difficult time for students who – often for the first time – are on the bottom half of steep curves.  If you are in that situation, I thought I’d offer one tip that might help you diagnosis a correctable problem with exam-taking technique.  When you get back your exam, and before you look at the model answer, I’d urge you to scan your exam for the following phrases:

A could argue that; or A might argue that; or A has an argument…

Every time you see this phrase, highlight it in red ink.  It’s almost certainly leading you down a dark path.

Why is this phrase pernicious?  Because, very often, it signals that you are about to fail to actually evaluate the noted argument. Rather, you will simply list the possibility (in contracts, for example, “A could argue that the correspondence of May 1 was an offer”) and not tell the reader whether or not that claim is a plausible or winning one in court.  Though sometimes professors truly want to see a kitchen sink of every possible issue , most, instead, are testing judgment. Judgment requires one to actually evaluate legal claims, not to list them.  The problem with “argue that” is that it leads you to think that you are actually saying something — implicitly, that the argument raised is plausible? — without articulating the predicate rationale and limiting conditions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with students in exam reviews, pointed out this phrase, only to have the student tell me that they knew that the argument was a good or bad one, but they failed to articulate it on the page.  ”Argue that” blinds you to your own failure to exercise your situation sense.

The great thing about this tic is that it’s a useful, concrete, red flag for conclusory exam writing, which typically distinguishes average exams from great ones.  If you are working on your computer, you can simply use the find function before handing in the exam to make sure that you haven’t fallen into the trap.  Other tics, like “obviously,” “clearly,” and “certainly,” are similar but aren’t as prevalent on law school exam answers. Eliminating “could argue that” also helps to omit needless words: instead of introducing issues before disposing of them, you can simply fold the analysis into the introductory sentence. Thus: “While the May 1 letter has some of the markings of an offer (it identifies price & amount), it fails to state the timing of delivery and most courts will follow Nebraska Seed in denying formation.”

Now, you could argue that this is all needlessly pedantic mutterings over style points, when the real skills that ought to separate good from bad exams concern doctrine.  But, if you did make that argument, you’d be wrong. Being conclusory – that is, assuming the conclusion in question and failing to analyze why the answer follows from the...

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