5 Common Reasons You Are Failing Your Law School Exams

Failing a law school exam is a very tough pill to swallow. No one likes to perform poorly on exams and for many of you reading this, it might be the first time you have performed poorly on an exam in your life. The typical law student was an A-B student in undergrad, so failing an exam is something that might come as a bit of a shock. Read on to learn the reasons why you might have failed your law school exam and how to make sure it is your last!

1) You are taking shortcuts

Everyone takes shortcuts from time to time even in situations when they know they should not. You can read my article on the dangers of Quimbee here. Quimbee is not the only dangerous pitfall for a law student trying to achieve better grades with less time. Many students skip the notes in their casebooks at the end of caselaw, skimp on case summaries, and shy away from composing their own exam outlines.

Do these things sound like you? If so, you might be getting poor results on your law school exams because you are taking shortcuts in your exam preparation. Reading and re-reading cases until you understand them and taking accurate notes is a painful exercise but it is extremely helpful to ensuring that you understand the material.

In the case of law school exam outlines, oftentimes law schools, the SBA, and other student societies will have databases of outlines that you can use to supplement your work. Old outlines can be an extremely useful tool, especially if you are a Fall Semester 1L who has never composed one before.

One of the most common shortcuts I see people take is that they will find a recent outline and skip making their own. Instead, the student will supplement the old outline with whatever additional cases they have reviewed in the current class. This won’t be a problem if you are taking the class pass-fail, but in any other course you are virtually guaranteeing that you will be starting a lap behind your peers.

The point of a law school outline is not just to compile all of your notes into a succinct and organized 40 page document that you can quickly dive into during an exam. It is also important because a well-done and thought out outline will assist you in connecting the various legal doctrines you have learned during the semester. A semester of heavy readings and lectures will often make the first part of the semester feel completely separate from the second part, but the outline process will help you consolidate all of this information in your brain.

We have a depository of law school outlines available here for free!

2) You are missing the point of a law school exam

You have probably heard this before, but I am going to repeat it anyway: law school exams are unique from any exam you have previously taken. The typical law school exam is composed of part essay, part multiple choice. The essay portion will vary depending on the course, if it is a Torts class it will probably be a race to the very last second in finding and briefly analyzing every tort on the exam. On the other hand, a Constitutional Law course will typically have several complex questions that require significantly more thought than writing.

Regardless of what type of essay it is, the professor will likely want responses via IRAC. IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion, and it forms the basis for most law school exam responses. If you are failing the essay portion of a law school exam, there is a strong chance that it is because you are missing the point of IRAC.

Most law students do just fine with Rule and Conclusion, many are also able to identify the Issue reasonably well. What really separates the wheat from the chaff here is the Application portion of IRAC. Most students coming out of undergrad assume that the most important thing is that they identify the rule and come to the right conclusion, but this is not true on a law school exam. Since most law school exams are open-book, every law student sitting in your class should be able to identify the Issue and Rule. The problem, is that many law students skimp on the Application section, and forget to explain “why” they have come to a certain conclusion.

Just remember, that for every law school essay exam you take, you need to be asking yourself “why is this my Conclusion?”, and then write it down!

3) You second-guess yourself during multiple choice exams

Second-guessing yourself on multiple choice exams is an unfortunate problem that I have seen lots of students have issues with. A friend of mine and I were exact opposites on law school exams, I always hit multiple choice exams out of the ballpark and did okay on essays, whereas she performed exceptionally well on essays and okay on multiple choice exams.

Some law students have a problem with second-guessing themselves on multiple choice exams. While, it is not necessarily a bad thing to double check your outline and confirm that you are on the right track, it can be extremely detrimental to “read to far” into a question.

If you are the type of student that frequently has problems with multiple choice: (i) you second-guess yourself, (ii) you go back and change your answers (iii) and/or you read too far into the question, I suggest that you make multiple choice practice a key component of your strategy during the semester. You don’t even need to necessarily practice law school multiple choice exams, as your problem is not really related to the course material itself.

4) You are sacrificing the forest for the trees

forest for the trees

If you have taken a Torts exam you likely know what I am talking about here. Part of what makes fast-paced law school exams so difficult is that you have to make real-time decisions on how much effort to put into each issue. There might be over a dozen potential problems to respond to but you know that you can’t write a novel on every single problem.

You are never going to get the time-spent mix exactly right because you don’t have the professor’s answer key in front of you, but remember that you don’t want to get drawn into the weeds on any one specific issue. The professor has a certain amount of points allotted for each problem and that is it, you are not going to get any additional points simply because you went above and beyond on any specific problem.

5) You are spending time with the wrong people.

Making the right kinds of friends in law school is just as important as in any other walk of life. If you are failing your law school exams and the friends you are around are doing the same thing, that is a good sign that you need to find some new ones.

This becomes even more important if you are the type of person that likes to study with groups of people. Group study sessions can very quickly deteriorate into long conversations about what everyone is doing over the weekend and a dozen other subjects. If this situation is indicative of your group study sessions, I suggest that you find a new group of people to study with or study solo.


It’s no secret that law school exams are tough. They are time-sensitive, stressful, and they require you to memorize and apply an enormous amount of information. If you have failed a law school exam or two, you need to remember that it is not the end of the world. No one is immune from setbacks in life, what matters is how you learn from them. Luckily, failing a law school exam is a lesson that can be learned and avoided in the future. If any of the above reasons apply to you, take steps to rectify the problem and you will see improved results!

Stephen Metellus

I am a 3L law student in Washington D.C and owner of theartoflawschool.com! I started law school with a lot of hopes and expectations, and it has certainly been a wild ride from the start! My goal is writing articles that help you in navigating through law school.

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