By Professor Herb Ramy
Director, Academic Support Program, Suffolk University Law School
Too often, students begin their examination answers by stating their final conclusion. Instead, the answer should begin with a statement identifying the problem(s) one is seeking to resolve. This may not seem like an important distinction, but place yourself into examination mode for a moment and you will see my point.
As you begin reviewing an examination fact pattern, you will immediately begin seeing problems that require discussion. As you read further, the list of issues will grow. When you realize that an issue is actually a series of sub-issues, each of which requires its own independent discussion, it becomes obvious that time is of the essence.
As you try to move quickly but thoroughly through each answer, you will be tempted to follow your opening conclusions which stated how each problem should come out. The problem with this approach is that your first impressions were based on little thoughtful consideration of the problem. Instead, begin the discussion by stating the problem you are trying to resolve. For example, you might begin your analysis of a criminal law issue by noting that “John may have committed a larceny when he walked out of the room with Fred’s phone in his pocket.” Beginning in this fashion accomplishes several things:
- It reminds you to remain objective. When you start with a conclusion, the tendency is to support that conclusion even in the face of strong opposing arguments.
- It gives you the flexibility to consider all reasonable viewpoints before coming up with an answer.
- It helps you avoid backtracking. It is quite common to change your mind as to the appropriate outcome when conducting legal analysis. If you begin with a conclusion, but then change your mind, you will have to backtrack and alter the opening of your answer to accommodate your new opinion.
Remember, your examination grades rise and fall bases on the strength of your objective analysis of each problem you confront. While we want you to come to a conclusion, your final answer to each problem is far less important than your thorough and thoughtful discussion of the issues.
Finally, please remember that all of my “Tips of the Week,” particularly those related to examinations, provide general advice about law school. If any of your individual professors suggest something different, then follow what they are telling you. Better yet, ask them about any perceived differences between my suggestions and their examination requirements – you are likely to find that there is little real difference between the two.
Professor Herbert H. Ramy is the Director of Suffolk University Law School’s Academic Support Program. He posts a weekly blog of tips for First-Year and prospective law students.