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Welcome to Law School, Part IV

For many students, one of the real horrors of law school is the traditional grading system. For the large majority of your courses, one exam, at the end of the course, determines your whole grade. Some professors will factor in class participation; some professors will use quizzes or short writing assignments or mid-term exams. Legal research and writing courses, seminars, clinics, and practicum courses operate differently. But the bread and butter of law school evaluation is the one-shot essay exam, for all the marbles. Most of these will be in-class three- or four-hour tests, though some professors give take-home essay exams.

Why bother bringing this up two months before school even starts?

Today’s tip: You can improve your performance on essay exams simply by writing well, with good composition skills and clear syntax. When I read exams, I note students’ regular failure to display even the most rudimentary composition skills, stuff that everyone should have learned in high school and mastered in college. (Sadly, today, few do.) How to organize an essay. How to organize a paragraph. How to organize a sentence. How to recognize a sentence. I used to be surprised and disappointed by this; now I’m simply grateful when I find a well-written exam. Badly-written exams don’t automatically score poorly. Well-written exams don’t automatically score well. But good writing and good writing alone puts me in a good grading mood. As my constitutional law professor Paul Brest told us, you don’t want a grumpy person grading your exam.

The more you practice good writing, the more likely it is that you will bring good writing habits into the exam room. (And into your legal research and writing class, which will be the subject of another tip, later in the summer.) Right now, if you have the opportunity to write, pay attention to the craft. It will serve you well. Read good writers (see WTLS, Parts II and III) and study their techniques. If you’re not writing regularly for work or school, you are probably writing regularly somewhere — via email, or messaging, or blogging. Messaging isn’t the place to practice the kind of writing that you’ll use in law school (that’s a tip in itself: don’t write for law school using the style that you use for IM!). But email is. And blogging is. There will be times when email offers the opportunity to craft a well-written paragraph. Take that opportunity. Every blog post is a chance to practice your writing. Organize. Outline. Revise outline. Draft. Revise. Revise again. Post or send. Repeat.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part I: Get fit.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part II: Scientists should read some literature.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part III: Non-scientists should read some science.