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What are Law School Finals Like, Anyway?

If there’s one thing that terrifies prospective law students more than the LSAT, it’s law school finals. Even after gaining admission to some of the most hallowed halls in the country, the specter of that first round of exams casts a pallor over their heads.

Authors have written books on how to ace them. Students have created catchy acronyms to approach them. There are even simulated programs in which you can enroll that will take you through a mock semester, including an actual final at the end.

And why is there so much stress over a test? Haven’t you taken a ton in undergrad?

Yes, you have. But nothing like a law school final.

The biggest difference between the law school final and the undergrad final is the relative import of the exam. In undergrad, your final grade is determined by midterms, other exams, maybe some homework, and the majestic class participation (on top of that final). In law school, it’s ride or die. That final sums up your entire semester in a class. If you have a bad day, you get a bad grade in the class.

On top of that, it covers an entire semester’s worth of material. Considering the sheer number of pages, broken up over a large amount of cases, that entails, it can be a bit daunting.

So they’re important and inclusive and terrifying – what do they actually look like?

Law school finals can be split up into two types: the issue spotter, and the paper.

The paper is more familiar, so let’s start there.

Generally, you’ll get an umbrella topic from your law school professor and have to come up with your own, specific thesis within that world. Unlike undergrad, however, you can’t fill up five pages with an introduction, conclusion, and a few charts/graphs/pictures you doodled on Draw Something.

Law school essays need to be clear, concise, and well-formulated. Half a page should introduce the entire essay; half a page should wrap it up at the end. In between, you better have a clear path from A to B. Copious headings should allow the professor to follow your argument just by reading the bold breaks in the essay. Each sub-section should establish what you’re trying to prove, prove it, and then transition.

In short, you have to make a clear and convincing argument for your thesis by establishing each relevant leg of it without wasting any space.

The essay is more of a 2L or 3L thing, though; 1Ls should expect to receive a number of issue spotter exams.

So what is it, and how should you approach it?

On this exam, you will get several situations. They’ll read like little stories where people are committing crimes, transferring property, and throwing bowling balls out the window (sometimes all three). In each story, several legal issues will be raised. You’ll have to spot these issues, and then write about them. Sometimes, you’ll be the lawyer for the defense; sometimes, for the prosecution. Sometimes you’ll be advising a client of his rights; others, drafting a brief for a partner on what the relevant law is.

Every time, though, you’ll have to spot all of the relevant issues, cite the relevant legal standards and precedent, and determine the likely outcome of the case.

No handholding here – you’re responsible for figuring out the questions (i.e. the issues) as well as the answers. If you’re lucky, the law school professor will allow you to use your book. However, when the answer is buried somewhere in several thousand pages of case law, you better have a general idea going in or you’ll be completely lost.

Luckily, everyone is going to feel a bit overwhelmed by these finals, so you’re not alone. Your first set of finals will be terrifying, and as much (if not more) will be riding on those grades as the LSAT (which seems to be the biggest thing ever to you pre-law students out there).

But relax. The people in my class who freaked out and spent two weeks living in the library, for the most part, did worse on their finals than those who put in the time to learn the material and took a few nights off to hang out with friends. Life is all about balance, and you’ll learn better if your body isn’t flooded with stress chemicals. Grab an outline from a 2L (or write your own if it helps you learn), memorize the legal standards, and grab a beer or two. You’ll be just fine.