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Preparing for your first online law school exams


With continuing stay-home orders and closed campuses, many law students are studying to take their finals online for the first time. Here’s my advice on how to prepare.  

Understand the format for each of your exams: scheduled/unscheduled, duration, and if it’s at all open-book.

Your classic law school exam is scheduled (you have to start it at, say, May 5 at 9 AM), 3 hours (you have to finish it by noon), and closed-book (no outside materials, just you and your pen, writing feverishly).

This semester, some exams will mimic that, just with everyone at home typing away, all starting and ending at the prescribed time.

Other exams are self-scheduled, meaning that each student gets to choose when, within the finals period, they will take the exam.

In addition, the length of the exam may vary; my exams are open for 48 hours, and I’ve also seen 24 hours. Usually a longer period would be paired with an exam being at least somewhat open-book.

An open-book exam is a general term for allowing students to look at any outside resources during the exam. It’s more common in upper-level and statute-heavy courses, where classes are teaching students to access and apply the law rather than memorization. Make sure you understand exactly what resources your prof considers acceptable: options might range from a statute book only or your own outline only, to any of your course materials but not the Internet, to any materials or the Internet but no discussions with any person. 

Finally, make sure you’re clear on how you’ll access the exam and how you’ll turn it in. Most likely, you will log in to Canvas or Blackboard and see a “Final Exam” page.

In other words, you’re going to have a mix of exams, and you need to understand the parameters of each of your own tests. If you don’t know, ask ASAP.

For example, a 2L might have the following courses and finals:

  • Family Law (May 19 at 2 PM, 3 hours, closed-book)
  • Evidence (May 12 at 9 AM, 3 hours, your outline only)
  • Business Organizations (self-scheduled, 48 hours, any course materials)
  • Advanced Criminal Procedure (Motion due by the close of finals, which is May 19 at midnight)
  • Immigration Clinic (no final)

Make an individualized finals plan.

I suggest you create a schedule for when you will take your finals, including the self-scheduled ones, and set some personal deadlines. I liked to strive for a couple of days focused on each exam leading up to it.  Here’s an example based on the course schedule above:

Note that making a schedule like this (and generally sticking to it) would avoid the scenario of cramming to finish the motion in the evening of May 19, burned out after the family law exam. Likely not your best work. Alternatively, I could see a student spending their time working on the motion in the days before it is due, May 17-19, rather than studying for that scheduled family law exam. Instead, I’d advise you to work hard on it and turn it in early, on May 15, knowing you get that day off on May 16 and then have just one more final. (FYI, if this kind of planning your time resonates with you, check out the Getting Things Done method (after finals!)).

Like everything else, getting things done at home in a pandemic is complicated by the fact that everyone else is home, too. Maybe you need to work around the schedule of others in your household, or childcare arrangements. I recommend you communicate with your household as you prepare your plan. Finally, definitely let your household know when you will be taking exams, especially those time-limited ones. Hang a sign on the door or whatever you can do to minimize interruptions.  

I am guessing there will be more open-book exams this year. If you’ve never studied for an open-book exam before, your approach is quite different than a closed-book exam. Again, it is key to be clear on what materials your prof is allowing you to access while you take the exam. Instead of memorizing, be familiar with the materials available to you before you open the exam. Then, when you start the exam, you’ll have them at your fingertips (literally or electronically), ready to apply to the questions posed.

It’s not worth it to cheat. You might be tempted, especially as you’re anxious and no one is physically watching. I’ll give you both practical and ethical reasons. First, electronic exams capture a lot of data (e.g. keystrokes). If a question is raised about your exam, there will be both embarrassing questions and data to analyze. Second, the legal profession operates on a mostly self-regulating ethical code. Consider the challenge of taking exams from home, during a pandemic, as part of the character and fitness test.

Some institutions are debating electronic proctoring (e.g. someone watches you through your webcam) to avoid cheating. Don’t ruin it for everyone.

Pace yourself during long exams, and finals in general. I tell my students that a 48-hour exam absolutely does not mean they should work for 48 hours straight. Instead, I am trying to give them time to think carefully about the questions posed, identify and access resources, and write a thoughtful response.  I suggest sitting down with these exams for a block of time: open and read the whole exam, understand what you’ll need to do, and work through it deliberately, saving often and taking breaks. Later, review and revise your work. And make sure that you submit everything before the 48 hours has run.

More generally, keep taking care of yourself during finals. It can be tempting to feel like you should study 24/7, especially when you can’t leave the house. Studies on learning have shown the value of studying hard in blocks of time, and then taking breaks to eat, exercise, sleep, and relax.  

Pay attention to instructions and announcements. School are all trying to figure out how to manage finals in these uncertain times. If your school or prof says something that differs from what I said above, go with that.

Finally, congratulations: you’re almost done with a very unusual and difficult semester of law school. You’ve got this.

Jen Randolph Reise Jen Randolph Reise teaches business law as a visiting professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, the first U.S. law school to launch an ABA-approved blended learning J.D. program. She is a securities and corporate governance attorney by training, and has worked both in private practice at a large Minneapolis firm and in-house at a public company. She has also founded tech-ed startup JD Navigator, with advice for people considering law school.