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The Five Horsemen of the (Law School Essay Exam) Apocalypse

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Five Horsemen

The original Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Conquest, Slaughter, Famine and Death— were harbingers of the Final Judgment in the New Testament of the Bible. There is, of course, a final judgment that follows each law school examination, too.

When an apocalyptic grade is assigned by your professor, it can often be attributed to one of what may be called the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

These five horsemen can sometimes be heard riding past as you draft your response to an examination essay question:

The first horseman: Leaping to bare conclusions

On a typical essay question, you’ll be faced with a detailed fact pattern and asked to analyze, in some fashion, the legal issues raised by the facts. You may think the key to success will be your ability to identify the right answer in a particular sense; that is, how the hypothetical case should turn out or be resolved.

The temptation may be to identify the legal issues you think are implicated by the facts; to announce the applicable rule or rules of law that govern the matter; and then—and here’s the problem—to gallop straight to a victorious pronouncement of your conclusion.

This, however, would leave out what should be the meat of your discussion: The careful analytical process of working with the facts, in detail, in light of the applicable legal standard. This may involve a shift in your attitude about what constitutes a “right answer” on a law school examination.

The right answer to an essay question isn’t, principally, the outcome or final conclusion you reach. The right answer is in the power of the analytical process you put on display to reach that conclusion. Make your reasoning explicit, along with your conclusions.

The second horseman: Dodging conclusions

This is the flip side of leaping to bare conclusions. It occurs when you’ve identified an issue, the legal rule you think is applicable, and the facts that bear upon a conclusion— but then refuse to commit yourself one way or another to a preferred resolution: “Well, it could go this way, or it could go that way. It all depends, and here’s the next issue.”

Because the “right answer” has less to do with the conclusions you draw than with the analytical process used to address an issue, some professors profess not to care if a conclusion is actually expressed or not. As a general matter, however, if you dodge conclusions when there’s a close call to make, you fail to put on display the subtlety of your judgment, the consistency of your analysis, and the depth of your mastery of the underlying issue.

Therefore, when faced with close calls—and essay questions routinely present them—express and explain your conclusions, however qualified or tentative they may be, rather than dodging them.

The third horseman: Over-certainty

This horseman rides with the greatest of confidence. He appears in the essay response that declares, in effect, “I’m right on this point, here’s why, and that’s all there is to it.” What that approach misses, especially on the typical essay question that presents a close call, is the acknowledgment and exploration of plausible alternative routes of analysis.

The risk is especially stark when an uncompromising resolution of a debatable threshold issue cuts off discussion of other downstream issues that are fairly raised by the facts. You decide, for example, that the defendant lacks standing to raise a Fourth Amendment issue and never discuss that issue at all.

This road leads to the Apocalypse! Instead, you should express and explain your conclusion on the threshold issue and then address the downstream issues that would arise if the threshold issue were resolved the other way.

The fourth horseman: Undercoverage

Under-coverage in your response may simply mean that you failed to identify an important issue altogether or that you failed to recognize an important step in the analysis of an identified issue. Sometimes, though, your undercoverage of issues may be advertent, the product of a natural desire to avoid dealing with a particularly thorny issue. It’s in thorny areas, though, that the most points (to be scored) are often hidden.

Remember that you can get no credit for matters that aren’t addressed, but that you may well get partial credit for addressing a difficult matter in an imperfect way. Essay questions are meant to present thorny issues, and it’s ordinarily to your advantage to grit your teeth and jump into the briar patch with both feet. It’s in these difficult areas that you can show your mettle and truly earn your grade.

The fifth horseman: Over-coverage

When you’ve invested great energy in studying for an examination, there’s a terrible temptation to show how much you’ve learned. This can take the form of finding a tiny foothold to support an extended discussion of matters that you understand well but that are only marginally relevant to the exact question asked (as opposed to the question you wish had been asked). Flee from this temptation! Overcoverage squanders time, and earns little or no credit. Answer what’s asked. No less, and, especially (as Poe’s raven reminds us), never more.

These horsemen are often heard riding singly or together through first-year examination rooms. They’re harbingers of disaster and especially to be avoided as you draft your response to the typical essay question on a law school examination.