Preparing for and writing exams

So the semester is over and the stress level is rising? There is a lot of material and you sometimes feel swamped? Here are a few tips and reminders:

Exam preparation:

1. Remember that the exam is open book. What matters is not knowing everything in minute detail but understanding enough about the broad contours of the course that you will have developed a good instinct for how to argue about the law.
2. Devise your own way of accessing material rapidly. This may be summaries or an index or cards or whatever helps. Given that the first semester is a take home exam and you will have access to electronic material, that should further assist you in finding things quickly.
3. One of the biggest challenges in being a lawyer in seeing what is truly important in a sea of information. Much of what we did in the classroom involved exactly that process. You will need to continue refining that skill constantly. In Canada, for example, we are helped by the increasing Charter-centric focus of the criminal law which means that many of the debates boil down to whether a particular right has been violated. Try to figure out what the issue of principle is at the heart of any given debate.
4. The exam will be planned so that timing is tight, so you should ideally not have to waste time reading things. All you should need when checking your notes or readings is little reminders that you are on the right course.
5. Over the semester/year we have had some more general and theoretical and some more concrete sessions, but be mindful of the strong connections between those.
6. Go back to the class questions as a way of testing yourself.
7. If there are questions in the slides that we did not cover in class, try and address them yourselves as practice and feel free to ask me at the Q&A session or during office hours.

The exam itself:

1. The questions will be relatively open so do not be fixated on getting "the right answer" as much as arguing for your answer thoroughly. I cannot stress enough how the ordinary work of a lawyer is not mechanically applying some straightforward principle to facts, but making the most of the arguments that the law allows you to make as well as, occasionally, finding the law wanting.
2. Read the questions carefully, do not rush, plan your response.
3. Make sure you distinguish between your immediate gut reaction and your emerging judgement as a lawyer. The two may occasionally coincide but really what makes the law profession distinct is its ability to come up with specifically legal arguments. Specifically legal argument, however, often do not exist in a void from major political or moral debates, they are just a different way of talking about some of the very same issues.