Law School Essay Exams: Focus on Key Facts
“Legal problem solving – identifying and diagnosing problems and generating strategies and tactics to achieve client objectives – is the most basic function of a legally trained person. Most legal problem solving activities involve some legal analysis – combining laws and facts to generate, justify and evaluate a merits of the legal problem “. (Legal Services Practice Manual: Skills, 2010)
All lawsuits arise as a result of disputes involving facts. Our legal system revolves around the resolution of disputes by applying rules of law to the facts of a case. Yes, trials and appeals are about “law,” but remember that the trial court judge, or jury, is called a “judge of fact.” Findings of fact are so important that the Bill of Rights guarantees that the facts, once decided by a jury, are practically the last word. The Seventh Amendment provides that, “… no fact judged by a jury shall be reexamined otherwise in any court of the United States, than in accordance with the rules of common law.” This clause prohibits any court from reexamining or overturning any factual determination made by a jury, unless the factual determinations are clearly wrong.
The two main components of the dispute resolution process are the applicable law and the facts of the dispute. In professional legal practice, you will examine the case file to identify which of the hundreds or thousands of facts produced by the discovery (eg, witness statements, testimony transcripts, responses to interrogations, photographs, and correspondence) are “key.” facts. The key facts are those that are critical to the outcome of the case. A key fact is so essential that if it were changed, the outcome of the case could be different.
In law school, you are practicing this skill of focusing on the facts; In order for you to learn to evaluate legal issues, you must be able to find the important facts … the key facts, the facts on which the outcome of the problem at hand depends. When writing an answer to a law school essay exam question, you must uncover these highlights from all the facts presented in the narrative. Think of them as cues that unlock discussions about scoring issues.
But how? These are the basic steps in determining which facts are key.
- Identify each statement that is likely to emerge from the test question.
- List the rules that will be used to resolve each issue for each claim. These rules include the elements that must be addressed in the discussion of each topic.
- Point out which facts in the question possibly relate to the elements of those questions.
This last step involves determining what facts may be legally significant. Legally significant facts could be, for example, that a tenant with an eviction notice has never been supplied with hot water; or that the shooter was an off-duty cop; or that one of the parties to a contract may have been a minor; or that the geographical distance between the incident that provoked it and the murder may have been long enough to provide enough time for a reasonable person to “cool” the heat of his passion.
After summarizing your answer, read the exam question one more time carefully and quickly (you should be fairly familiar with the question by now, so that reading can be much faster than the first time). Make sure you have mapped all the facts presented in the hypothetical question (the test) to some topic. If not, ask yourself if these facts suggest another problem, can they be used to further explain a problem that you already pointed out, or are simply “red herrings” (facts in the question that could lead you to an errant discussion). Then use this fact-rich outline as a roadmap to answer the question. Note that your outline does not need to include explanations of why the facts are important; detailed analysis comes in your answer. The outline is just your writing guide.
As for the outline, you may want to follow a traditional outline pattern (bullets, hierarchies, mind maps, etc) … or, to accentuate your fact-finding, you may want to think of a two-column approach. You can summarize your answer using two separate columns. Specifically, you can list the problems in one column and then write down the facts that need to be discussed in relation to those rules in the next column. This method will allow you to relate the problems or subtopics of the law to the facts of the question. By flipping through the question quickly (again) before writing the essay, you can quickly tell if you have missed a fact.
Long before you face your exams, make an effort to recognize the key facts. Focus on the key facts when presenting cases in class. Some students find that including basic fact patterns in their self-made course outlines, such as illustrations of the rules that appear in the outlines, helps them think of the rules in terms of situation.
Many years ago, as a child, fictional Los Angeles Police Sgt. Joe Friday, the hero of the television series “Dragnet,” used to tell witnesses he interviewed, “All we want is the facts.” Well, there’s more to it than that when you’re trying to score high on a law school writing test … but Sgt. Friday focused on one of two essential components: you should too!