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December 18, 2004


In case anyone’s interested, here’s my take on law school exams. i finished with civil procedure, torts and contracts (my favorite). Next up are criminal law and property. i've been in school most of my life and i've mastered just about every type of test there is. But the law school exam is a different kinda bitch altogether.

One key to taking a law school exam, which i just learned this week, is panic management. How come nobody told me about the panic thing? i first discovered this phenomenon while doing timed practice exams during the week before finals. Panic attack severity seems to be inversely related to the amount of time remaining for exam completion.

i’ve finished three exams so far, and i’ve had three panic attacks. Each one occurred somewhere between the halfway mark and three quarters of the way through the exam. Each was accompanied by dry mouth, an increased heart rate, and a curious rushing sound in my ears; not to mention a morbid feeling of dread helplessness, as if i were drowning or being buried alive.

The first panic attack occurred soon after i congratulated myself for having completed question two of the civil procedure examination well ahead of schedule. That should have been a warning - i ain't that smart. i suddenly realized that i had completely missed the arcane issues of ancillary and pendent jurisdiction. Instead of having extra time for the third question, this blunder required me to go back and add shit to my previous answer. I ended up having to rush through the third essay. Luckily, i managed to finish just as time was called.

The torts panic attack came not from any brain fart of my own - i got that subject down cold - but from the sick realization that there was too much to write and not enough time to do it. Time management again rears its ugly head. The final essay, though easy, simply had too many issues for the amount of time left. i raced through it, abbreviating as much as i could without degenerating into something akin to IM speak.

D prvlgd by prvt ncssty b/c D’s invsn of P’s ppty was rsnbl 2 prtct D’s ppty, t/f no trspss, h’ver b/c prvt ncssty = qlf’d prvlg, D mst py 4 dmg csd by non-trts cndt.
Well, not quite that bad, but i was definitely in what i like to call “finished product mode.”

By Friday, i greeted the panic attack as if it were an old friend. The thing to do is recognize that it is coming and push through it. i never had panic attacks in undergrad or grad school exams. That’s the cool thing about the liberal arts. i always knew if i got stuck i could always b.s. my way out of it. If i wasn’t sure about one aspect of the subject, i could always emphasize the stuff i knew really well. Distract the professor with my brilliance on what i did know, so he couldn’t in good conscience penalize me for what i didn’t know. It usually worked.

But the law school exam is not so forgiving. If there are five elements you have to apply, and you do an awesome job applying four of them, but miss the fifth, you still blew 20 percent of the grade. That’s what worries me. i think i spotted all of the issues presented in the exams. But how would i know if i didn’t? i guess i won’t know until grades come out.

Posted by annika, Dec. 18, 2004 |
Rubric: Legal Mumbo Jumbo


Good luck, A. I'm sure you did fine. Stressing about a test is usually a good sign.


Posted by: Kevin Kim on Dec. 19, 2004

"i think i spotted all of the issues presented in the exams. But how would i know if i didn’t?"

That looks like a rhetorical question, but the rhetorical answer is: you can't. You can usually tell if you COMPLETELY fucked up, but beyond that, as others have almost surely told you, it doesn't get any easier. I've taken one bar exam (California) and failed by an infuriatingly razor-thin margin; I've taken another (Florida) and passed comfortably. In both cases, once finished, I had absolutely no idea how I did.

Kevin, stressing can be a good sign, but a genuine immobilizing panic attack probably isn't. Do whatever you possibly can that you know relaxes you: a solid eight hours of sleep the night before, for example, really can be much more helpful than any last-minute cram session.

Posted by: Dave J on Dec. 19, 2004

i really do believe in a good night's sleep before exams. That's something i learned in undergrad, when i learned that i actually did worse after staying up all night.

Of course, doing "whatever you possibly can that you know relaxes you" is advice that could get me in big trouble during the exam.

Posted by: annika on Dec. 19, 2004

Yeah, looking back, maybe I did phrase that the wrong way. ;-)

Posted by: Dave J on Dec. 19, 2004

I don't know if any of this applies to your situation, but I was reminded of panicky adrenaline moments in my own life:

-Alcoholic parent vs. child argument moments
-Sports moments in front of big crowds
-Providing first aid during health crises

It sounds like you may be doing what I did in these situations:

1) Be conscious and deliberate about where and how you direct your focus. Do not do anything in an unthinking, flighty, scatterbrained fashion.

2) Embrace the moment. Embrace the challenge of the moment. It is a fabulous moment insofar as you are playing life full-out in this moment. There is NOTHING mundane or boring about this moment. I was born to be a hero. These are the moments I was born for.

From www.theanchoress.blogspot.com:

There is a line in the movie "A League of Their Own" that I always liked. On the eve of the World Series, the team’s star player leaves the game. “It just got too hard,” she explains to the manager.

“Of course it’s hard,” he responds fiercely. “That’s what makes it great.”

That's what I think about big moments, and pressure, and adrenaline: "Of course its hard! That's what makes it GREAT!"

Posted by: gcotharn on Dec. 19, 2004

I wish that I had the "shake-your-money-maker" option.

Posted by: Casca on Dec. 19, 2004

After 5 semesters of law school, I can attest: time constraint is the modus operandi of law school exams. Frustrating, no? Especially when you know that you KNOW the freaking material but have no time to perform. Good luck on your last two. (As for me, I'm done, wahoo!)

Posted by: Daniel Lowenberg on Dec. 19, 2004

Console yourself with these thoughts:

(1) If you ace the exams, you'll get a high-paying job right out of school.

(2) If you don't ace the exams, you'll still get a high-paying job out of school, so long as you graduate.

(3) Law in the real world bears ABSOLUTELY NO RESEMBLANCE to the tests in law school. You'll learn everything you need to know to pass the bar exam in a 4-week course before the exam. Of course, what appears on the bar exam bears little relation to any actual practice of law.

Don't you feel like your money on law school is being well-spent??

Posted by: JohnL on Dec. 19, 2004

Annika, I found that being tired for law school exams was not a bad thing. The low level fatigue helped to minimize the initial onset of panic that accompanied most exams. Also, it helped to stimulate the “fight or flight” response, which increases the thought process. But this could just me. As for time management it is important to remember that Law school exams are not designed to be finished! They are graded on a curve and you are judged on how the rest of your class performs and not on fixed standard. The test are designed to create panic attacks in that they are impossible to complete. Always remember to focus on the issues that you will get the most points for and try not to spend too much time on sub-issues that may only be worth 1 or 2 points. Only answer those sup-issues if you have time after satisfactorily completing the larger issues or if you know you tanked the large issue are you are trying to minimize the effect of the question on the overall all exam. Just some tips.

Posted by: lawguy on Dec. 19, 2004


Do you actually read the responses here?

"How come nobody told me about the panic thing?"

What do you think I was talking about when I wrote "The first year they scare you to death; second year they work you to death; the third year they bore you to death"?

Here's a good lesson to remember: Never, Never, Never discuss your analysis and answers with your fellow students after the exam. This goes for law school and especially during the bar exam.

I made one exception to that rule the first day of the bar exam. I was badgered by a good pal, who was an editor of the Law Review, to give him my analysis and answer to a riparian water question, which I knew cold. He knew that I was preparing to be a real estate lawyer and had excelled in the class and wanted to know what I saw. I finally relented, but only agreed to give him my answer if he would not comment on it or discuss his.

After I finished (we were on the way to lunch), he went in the bushes and threw up. He did not pass the bar that year.

Annie, with your intellect and keen sense of everything around you, all you need to do is sleep well and pick out the issues. The answers don't matter; we find them in the books or lexis. All the readers and graders want to know is whether or not you see the problems and approach the answer correctly.

I'm rooting for you.

Posted by: shelly on Dec. 20, 2004

My first round of law school exams was 13 years ago (egad!), but here are the things I remember. Prepare as best you can and be as relaxed as you can. If you can do this and sleep well the night before, good for you. I never could, and often could be found at the Williamsburg Dunkin Donuts at 5 am exam day eating coffee and reading outlines. Never, ever, ever discuss exam questions once the exam is over. Never read course material once an exam is over looking to see what you missed. And always remember there is such a thing as a bad exam, so your grade on an exam you thought you failed miserably might actually turn out OK (thank god for grading on a curve). That was my experience in Tax, where I had a professor who claimed to believe that the specifics of the tax code don't really matter because they change all the time, so we spent the whole semester discussing tax theory (i.e. why certain things should be income or taxable in the abstract). Then on the exam, we had questions asking whether certain items were income or taxable under the tax code as written. Everybody assumed they failed, but of course most didn't. It was a bad exam, at least under the circumstances. As for things that relax you, I did have a friend who took a bourbon and coke into his final law school exam, which he started drinking as he wrote the final answer, on the theory that the booze wouldn't affect him that quickly, but would lead to a nice buzz as he left the room. He did just fine on that exam.

Posted by: Fred on Dec. 20, 2004

"(2) If you don't ace the exams, you'll still get a high-paying job out of school, so long as you graduate."

Define "high-paying," please, John. Relative to whom? The workforce as a whole, who mostly don't have seven years' worth of educational debt?

Posted by: Dave J on Dec. 20, 2004

Re: don't talk to anyone afterwards, Ginger told me the same thing. It is good advice.

Posted by: annika on Dec. 20, 2004

F***! I wish someone would tell my wife and kids that my job is "high-paying." They don't seem to buy it.

John's (2) depends on a lot of variables; it's not a universal truth.

Doesn't that make you feel better, Annie? ;-)

Posted by: Matt on Dec. 21, 2004