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How to Excel on a Law School Exam

August 29, 2014

With the start of the new academic year, TJSL Professor Ken Vandevelde has taken the initiative to talk to students about how to succeed in law school and, more particularly, about how to write a law school exam answer.

“Law professors share a pretty strong consensus about what constitutes a good law school exam answer,” he explains, “but many law students have the impression that we are all looking for something different. I thought that I would start a public conversation that will demystify law school exams and tell students what constitutes a good law school exam answer, so that they can focus on the substance of what they should be learning rather than on the exam process itself.”

The topic of how to write a law school exam answer comes naturally to Professor Vandevelde, who began working on a book on legal reasoning during his first year as a law professor. “The first year that I taught,” he recalls, “I had a two hour commute each way and, rather than waste all that time, I carried a small tape recorder with me in my car and started dictating a book. I worked on the book for six years. This included a process of asking a number of my former students to read and comment on the manuscript to ensure that it was accessible and helpful to them. It also included incorporating comments from Stanford Law Professors Robert Gordon and Margaret Jane Radin, who selected the manuscript for publication as part of a series of books that they were editing.”

The result was his book Thinking Like a Lawyer: An Introduction to Legal Reasoning. The book was originally published in 1996, but a couple of years ago, at the request of the publisher, he wrote a second edition, adding new material on the role of cognitive bias in decision making and on several other topics. The book has also been translated into Portuguese for use in Brazil. He has been approached about a Chinese translation as well.

According to Professor Vandevelde, “the purpose of a law school exam is really to test your ability to think like a lawyer. Thinking like a lawyer involves using legal rules to construct and evaluate arguments about the possible legal consequences of various combinations of facts. Knowing the law is a necessary foundation for writing even a mediocre answer, but to excel you need to go beyond learning the rules of law and really develop the skill of legal reasoning.”

“In the video,” he continues, “I can’t go into nearly the level of detail that I do in the book about how to construct and evaluate arguments. But I can explain what their answers should look like so that students at least are clear about what their goal is. That way, they can concentrate on learning the legal doctrine and really nurturing their legal reasoning skills.”