Exam Prep

In the weeks before exams it is important to focus on process not just memorizing your outline. Moreover, during exams you need to think how best to give the law of the course according to the professor's point of view. Here are some helpful hints in reaching the goal of a well-written exam. 

Answering Exam Essays

IREAC is one method used to answer essay examination questions. While it is very important to understand that not every professor in your law school wants students to use IREAC on essay examination questions, a reasonable number do. However, before you make any assumptions, ask your professors if they want IREAC. You may need to make adjustments specific to their preferences; after all, they are the ones grading your examination.

However, whether your professor wants you to use IREAC or not, this method can be generally used as the starting point for examination questions. IREAC stands for: Issue, Rule, Application, Explanation (some professors may combine A and E and call it either Application or Analysis) Conclusion - is not just for writing legal memoranda.

The first part of any examination is to issue spot and tell the professor what the issue is. Sounds easy, right? Not necessarily. Many professors have a number of issues in their essay examinations. The first part of the process is to read the essay several time so that you can identify issues - note the questions at hand - and then logically order them so that the professor can follow what you are talking about. Issue spotting is hard because it is not based on rote memorization of the cases, but rather an understanding of the legal rules.

After noting what legal issues are presented, focus on the rule. Many students mistakenly write only the basic rule and go on to conclude that it applies or not. Wrong! Think of your high school algebra equations and problems. Recall that the teacher told you that even if you got the correct final answer, she would deduct points if you didn't show your work. Guess what? You need to show your analysis on these essay answers or the professor will not give you much credit for your answer. Simply knowing the correct answer will not guarantee an "A" or "B" or "C." Minimally, the professor assumes you know the law (the rules and exceptions). She further expects that you can pick out the right rules (issue spotting). What she wants to see is how you get or your progressed from the issue to the conclusion - that is, the "R," "A" and "E" of IREAC.

So what is the rule? Well, legal issues are decided by first figuring out what the rule of law is, and then applying that rule to a particular set of facts. This includes an explanation of the rule that will govern the question. You need to state the applicable rule along with explaining where the rule comes from and what it means. Remember, you have synthesized your case briefs and used the class discussion to draw out the important rules of law. Moreover, your outline not only identified the rule, it also defined terms and concepts, explained the policy reasons, pointed out the exceptions, etc. So once you have decided on the overall issues, break them down into the necessary component parts needed to get you to a conclusion regarding that issue. Sometimes this is easy - five elements for adverse possession - but many require you to think through the process of how you will arrive at an answer.

Therefore, during the examination, you will need to focus on which rule and which elements of that rule are relevant. Now let's assume you now have to explain the rule: now explain it to the professor- just like in an algebraic equation. To do so, you may need to:

  1. Describe what the courts said about the rule.
  2. Describe how courts generally applied the rule.
  3. Point out any relevant information about how the courts did not apply the rule (the limitations of that rule).
  4. Point out any relevant factors/facts the courts emphasized.
  5. Describe the policy consideration or leading commentators (e.g. Restatement) that support the rule.

You may also need to specifically cite to the source of the rules in certain courses (e.g. examination answers in Civil Procedure generally will include references to lead cases or the Rules of Civil Procedure or other statutory sections). In those instances, references to the case may be part of your discussion of the rule.

Limit discussion of the rules to what is relevant. In other words, you don't need to reinvent the wheel on topics that clearly are not relevant to the issue in the examination. For example, let's assume you have an issue regarding a promise - did A promise B that he will buy a million copies of the self-published biography of B's dog. Do you need to give a five-page discussion up front of everything you know about contracts? No - center on the issue at hand; once completed, go to the next. Therefore "rule" in IREAC is the abstract rule of law for that issue and the explanation of what it means.

Application or analysis, with explanation, is next: This involves deductive thinking - that is, the use of the general rule (which you got from synthesizing case briefs in your casebook) to decide the result in the specific set of facts asked in your examination question. Application of the rules to the facts is also where many people have problems for two reasons. First, the student's application is too conclusory (e.g. little or no explanation). Remember, it's the process (or journey) that the professor is looking for. Think of it like an algebra problem - not much credit unless you show your work. Secondly, students only discuss their selected conclusion and fail to tell the professor why the other possibilities were appropriately rejected.

Generally, the facts given to you in an essay question present a close question asto which, how and/or whether the rule will apply. Therefore, once you have decided what rules are relevant, you then need to ask yourself how this rule should be applied in this new context. Thus, your application of rule to facts means explaining your thought process in a logical way (which means that your thoughts need to be logical, which means you need to organize and synthesize your rules so they make sense). Again, you need to be specific in your answer by creating analogies or distinctions, demonstrating to the professors that under the examination facts, the rule would apply because the examination facts are analogous to the facts of the rule. On the other hand, you might conclude and explain that the examination facts are sufficiently distinct so that they were not intended to be covered under the established rule. The idea is for you to create the analogies/distinctions so that the professor understands why you are reaching those conclusions.

One organization tool that might help the students who tend to be "conclusory," is to use "because" after any conclusion you reach. To make sure you have a basis for that "because," outline your answer in three separate columns. Chart the issues in one column, note the facts that need to be discussed in relation to those rules in the next, and if needed, illustrate with cases and policy in the third column. Use abbreviations giving only enough details so you recall what's important. To make sure you have assigned all the facts to some issue reread the question. If there are additional facts that are not assigned, ask yourself if these facts suggest another issue, can be used to further explain an issue you already noted, or are the infamous "red herring." Then use this outline as a roadmap for answering the question.

Just remember - if the analysis (application and explanation) was in your head, but not on your paper - you will not get those points. So answer the exam question with specificity.

This leads to the conclusion. Don't forget to consider the remedy and answer the professor's question. If she wants to know what position both sides will argue - tell her. Likewise, if she wants to know how the appellate court will rule on all the lower court's decisions, make sure you tell the professor that the appellate court will reverse or affirm each of the lower court's rulings.

Finally, there are certain considerations in using IREAC. At times, the professor gives you an essay question that deals with a rule that has many elements. You will therefore need to break the rule down and explain each element too. To best do this, you will need to do separate IREAC for each part of the rule. However, not all IREAC's are created equal - some can be cursory, while others require more information. For example, the torts professor may ask you about a dog bite case. Under the cases you read in class, you have determined that a dog owner is liable for all injuries caused by his dog unless the dog was provoked by the victim. Breaking this rule into three elements, you determine that you must first show ownership of the dog by someone other than victim. In this case, the facts stated that the defendant was the owner. Thus, your discussion of this element needs little detail, although it still needs to be mentioned. Secondly, you must show an injury. Again, under the facts, this is a given - but you still need a short discussion for that element to be met. Finally, you must show a lack of provocation by victim. The essay facts indicate that this is the area that needs full IREAC.

Therefore, think of IREAC as a strategy for answering essay questions. Use IREAC to organize your thinking during the examination and as a method to guarantee that you have covered all the required parts of legal analysis.

Golden Rules of Exam Taking

(Based upon material created by Kris Song and presented by Professor Kris Knaplund during the summer 2002 LSAC AATW conference)

  1. Argue from the Facts: This is the most important rule. Professors spend lots of time placing key facts into the exam problem - make sure you incorporate them into your answer! Make sure there is an application of facts in any answer you write.
  2. Answer the Call of the Question: If the question asks you to be a judge - answer the question as a judge would - more objectively examining both sides of the argument and coming to a decision consistent with the law that you learned in that class. If you are asked to be a lawyer, your conclusions should be in the form of advice. If the question is a policy type question, you need to (generally) factor in economics, social, practical, equitable consequences of any legal course of action.
  3. Say "Because": The use of "because" will insure that you explain the rules and relevant issues. Remember, most professors assume you will know the black letter law - it's the "because" that demonstrates to them that you understand the concept and can explain why that rule or concept applies under this set of circumstances.
  4. Watch Your Time: The best answer on question #1 doesn't make up for the last question that you didn't answer. Even if you got all the points for the first question (and second and third), it takes a lot to make up zero points on the last issue. Just remember that whether the allotted time is reasonable or not - you must answer each essay question. So, note the exact time that you need to begin a new question - and do it!
  5. Divide up the Issues and the Cast of Characters: The best way to guarantee that you have answered the question asked on the exam is to divide up the issues and the various people involved. You need to divide and conquer in order to succeed. Don't analyze two different issues or apply the law to two people in divergent factual situations in the same paragraph. Instead, spend 1/3 or 1/4 of your time framing the issues into a quick outline before you begin writing. Use headings for each new issue and separately analyze each character's legal status. This will help maximize organization - and points!

Four Common Errors in Exam Taking

  1. The Teaser: The student spots issues, but not much more. For example, they might write: "Consideration is an issue because there seems to be a bargained for exchange between the parties. Because there is a bargain here, the contract does not fail for lack of consideration." All this does is note an issue - and a possible outcome. There is no explanation of why or how the facts fit in this case. So, to avoid this problem, the life lesson is to go back to the facts and apply the law to those facts. Say "because."
  2. The Dead Cow Beater: Hurray - you spotted an issue! But don't make the mistake of talking about it way past the time allotment - or the worth of the issue. But while the temptation to use every case, restatement and policy argument is great, once you nailed it, move on! Remember you only get a limited amount of points per issue, and an extensive discussion of one issue will not help you once you have completed a reasonable analysis. Students are most apt to fall into this pitfall when they want to be comprehensive. While you might pick up a few more points by overly enthusiastic analysis, you will also lose a lot more points because you won't get to the rest of the question (or exam). So, to avoid this problem - watch your time!
  3. The Scramble: Organization goes a long way in getting points on your exam. Remember, professors are used to reading legal documents and court decisions that tend to deal with one issue at a time. Students, particularly nervous ones, tend to start writing without organizing what they are writing. They try and shot gun every issue they see and put all they know into the blue book. The result is a mush of analysis. In that situation, the student is left hoping that the professor will see the correct analysis in line to a given issue. If you find yourself claiming that your analysis should have been given points because "I said that here," you are probably a scrambler. So, to avoid this problem - spend 1/3 or 1/4 of your time framing the issues into a quick outline before you begin writing. Organization will help you get more points from your analysis.
  4. The Glorified Outline: This error tends to occur when you have an open book exam. While it is great that you don't need to memorize every statute or restatement, there is a risk that you will become too dependent upon your outline and other notes. Do not copy your outline into the exam! Remember what the purpose of an exam is: to determine if you know the law well enough to answer specific issues found within the question. If you solely rely upon prepared discussions of the law, you will fail to consider the facts in the question. So, to avoid this problem, argue from the facts. An outline can be very helpful for the exam, but you have to remember to argue from the facts and apply the law to those facts.

Seven C's of Exam Success

Are you finding yourself confused about the professor's expectations regarding exams? Tired of IRAC, or IREAC, or CREAC - or any other set of similar type initials? Perhaps the seven C's can give you a better sense of how you should approach exams.

  1. Call of the question: The call is really two things - knowing who you are supposed to represent (Court? Lawyer? Policymaker?); and having a sense of what the professor wants (A ruling? A remedy? An argument?) Knowing these points really helps you.
  2. Cast of characters: Is more than simply dividing up your issues. You also need to think about the purpose of their presence. So you need a plan of action as to how to view your people in the exam question. Ask yourself:
  • Are they players?
  • Are they background (in the sense that their presence is in support of someone else)?
  • Are there a number of pairs arguing against each other?

Knowing the answers to these questions can help you group the issues better and see where the professor finds issues. In a complex, multi-issue problem with a large cast of characters, it is important to know each player's function - and how they line up against each other.

  1. Context: Here is the stuff everyone forgets. Before you get to the specifics, it's a good idea to give the reader a sense of where you are going. So, if talking about applying an exception - tell the reader the general rule of law. If applying a rule, explain it so that the reader knows the "rules of the game." Moreover, you ultimately need to get started and giving context to your answer helps organize your answer. Remember, the professor is not going to assume you understand the purpose of summary judgment or the definition of murder in the first degree unless you tell her. If the type of contract it is will color what you do - explain that it is/is not covered by the UCC. If you are deciding to take away the rights of the jury by a directed verdict - or move one case to another place because of a change of venue - give the rationale of what each is supposed to accomplish. The bottom line is that you should not assume anything with respect to what the reader (aka the professor) knows - you must be specific and tell him or her.
  2. Conflict: Once you give the context information that you need, you will then need to focus on what the specific problem is. Now your goal is to examine and explain the sides of the conflict. In doing so, it is important to always keep in mind what the diverging parties would argue, even if the call of the question will result in a court decision. Unless you know what each side wants or could want, how can you figure out which position is better? "Bottom line" analysis is not sufficient! Remember the professor is going to grade the process, so show the problems, the conflicts and the maybes! Generally, these conflicts involve four general types of problems:
  • The pick one (or more) from a series of similar type rules (Could the defendant be charged with murder one? Two? Manslaughter? All? Some?)
  • Decide whether rule applies (Can the court use parole evidence in this contract situation?)
  • Assess if what was done was right with respect to the rule, or, the converse of the above. (Was summary judgment properly granted?)
  • Argue your best position (If you are the defendant's attorney, how can you get in parole evidence?)

But, no matter what type of question, you will always need to know how to present a thorough discussion of the conflicts that are involved in the question. One way of checking yourself is to use phrases such as:

  • So, this is the first possible rule because...
  • It is important to consider this rule because...
  • It is important to remember that this rule is different from this (other) rule because...
  1. Consequences: So if you have applied this rule - so what? What do we get for our troubles? Need to explain the effect of applying the selected rule under these examination facts. So beyond just telling the professor the rules and what they mean, you also need to tell her what happens because of the set of facts in the specific problem. The goal in good exam writing is not to make the professor guess what would happen in the facts that she crafted. So use phrases like, "Here, under these facts of ..., the court would determine that this rule would apply because..." to get you started in applying rules to facts (and yes, this is the A in IREAC!)
  2. Charms of the professors: Professors are not cookie cutters, which is why study aids are not perfect. So, if available, you should always look at past exams of that professor. And that's why you need to spend time actually practicing those problems or hypotheticals. You want to do this because you want to be very familiar with anticipating what a professor wants in his answer. So, if they like references to cases, do it. If they like references to the Restatement or the UCC or other code, give it to them. If they like policy, theories, philosophy, alternative dispute resolutions, why not give them what they want? To quote Nike - just do it!
  3. Conclusions: Finally, as with all things, you must come to the end of the answer. So, tell the professor your version of "happily ever after," even if the result is not actually happy. So, what will happen? Who should win? What were the concerns that you took care of? By actually reviewing the question asked, you can guarantee that you gave that professor her answer. So don't assume the professor can figure out what will happen because of your analysis - tell him!