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Preparing for Law Exams

By Richard Scragg, from Legal Writing: A Complete Guide for a Career in Law (LexisNexis, 2014)

Examinations are a fundamental form of assessment for undergraduate students. In terms of the core courses[1]a final exam is stipulated by the New Zealand Council of Legal Education, although a modest percentage of the overall grade for the course may come from some form of internal assessment[2]. In consequence, it is important that all law students be well versed in how to prepare for exams and how to address and answer an exam paper. Exactly the same style of preparation and exam technique are also required for in-term tests.

Purpose of examinations

An exam is an excellent way for a lecturer to determine how well a student has developed an understanding of a course as a whole. An exam calls on you, as a student, to display a range of skills: self-discipline in terms of preparing for the exam; an ability to interpret questions, spot issues and address those issues; an ability to think and organise your thoughts under pressure of time, so as to present them convincingly, and an ability to express your thoughts incisively, precisely and concisely. All that is expressed in Scragg Legal Writing 4th ed (LexisNexis, Wellington) 2014, Chapter 4 about the skill of good essay writing applies equally in an exam. Where you are writing an exam answer that takes the form of an essay, your answer needs to follow the conventional structure of introduction, body and conclusion.

Types of question

In a law exam there will be essays but there will also be problem-based questions and possibly questions consisting of several sub-questions for which you are required to write a paragraph in answer to each sub-question. In Legal System and Legal Method exams you will also be asked to undertake case analysis and statutory interpretation. Whatever the type of question, you will need to be able to write well and that means expressing your ideas in formal English, observing the rules of grammar and usage and writing in the idiom of the law.


The student who will do well in an exam is the one who is well prepared. What does this mean for you?

Avoid cramming
Do not leave your preparation until the last minute and then cram information into your head. Exams are not simply a test of memory; far from it — they are a test of understanding. To demonstrate your understanding you have to carry into the exam room your ideas in your head and if you are going to do this effectively, you need to work steadily throughout the whole course so that you have worked out your understanding of the material well before exam day. Exams are conducted under pressure of time so you need to be very clear in your mind about your understanding. Cramming can lead to confusion in the exam room when the student who has stuffed his or her head with knowledge at the last moment is confronted with a hitherto unknown question and has to answer it under pressure of time.

Memory work
To avoid cramming, spread your memory work over a lengthy period of time leading up to the exam. Ideally, as you complete a topic in your course, commit the key points to memory straightaway. The received knowledge about committing information to memory is that it works most effectively in blocks of 20 minutes each. Break up your memory sessions into these blocks over the course of the day as you prepare for the exam.

Study groups
Quite apart from your formal tutorial groups, establish informal study groups. Get together with two or three other people from your lecture or tutorial group and meet regularly. This will give you an opportunity to discuss the subject-matter of your course and to test your understanding of concepts against that of your peers. Sometimes you may be struggling with a concept and then somebody else says something about it, putting it in a way you had not considered before, and it suddenly becomes clear to you. This is one of the benefits of having your own study group. You can also go over past years’ exam papers together, discussing what you would cover in essays and spotting issues in problem-based questions.

Past question papers
Always take the time to read past question papers. If the same person has been lecturing the subject for some years you may pick out patterns in terms of topics that interest the lecturer. The same question may be repeated from time to time and reading past papers will give you a sense of the style of question you can expect. If your lecturer is new to the subject and has not set exam questions in it before, you must be prepared for changes in the style and content of questions. You can expect that your lecturer will address your class on the subject of the exam and that will give you the opportunity to ask questions to clarify anything you are uncertain about concerning format and content. Lecturers are invariably happy to answer such questions and are always concerned to make sure that their students know what to expect in terms of the format of the exam.

Focused thinking
The constraints of time in an exam call for efficient thinking. Efficient thinking means, for example, that if you are confronted with a question on the Rule of Law you do not want to spend valuable time in the exam thinking out what the main points of the doctrine are; you need to have thought out what they are in advance of the exam, so that you have the key elements of the doctrine at your fingertips and can then focus your thinking on how you are going to mould your knowledge to fit the question so that you can write an answer that is relevant (see Scragg Legal Writing 4th ed (LexisNexis, Wellington) 2014, Chapter 4 on essay writing). This is an efficient use of your time in the exam and can only be achieved by thorough preparation in advance of the exam. Do all the thinking you can before the exam. Such thinking extends to learning quotations you can use in the exam, plus working out opening sentences you may be able to use for your answers, or adapt for use.

For more on preparing for exams see Scragg Legal Writing: A Complete Guide for a Career in Law 4th ed (LexisNexis, 2014), chapter 5. Buy the book here.

[1] As defined by the New Zealand Council of Legal Education; see Scragg Legal Writing 4th ed (LexisNexis, Wellington) 2014 chapter 1.
[2] The New Zealand Council of Legal Education requires that the final examination in core courses must count for at least 60% of the final grade and internal assessment for no more than 40%. The Council’s approval is required where the internal assessment is worth more than 25% of the final grade. Application may be made for internal assessment of up to 50% with a final examination of 50% but the Council states that such approval will rarely be given: para 7 of Specific Council Resolutions, The Guidelines for New Zealand Council of Legal Education Moderators and University Examiners 2014.