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Tips for Answering a Legal Exam Essay Question

Paralegal students often struggle tremendously on legal essay examinations. When it comes to certification exams that contain a logical reasoning writing component, it's not surprising that they tend to have rather low passage rate. Effective logical reasoning with proper factual and legal analysis is a competency that takes a lot of work to master.  It can be an intimidating task, particularly when one is under the pressure of a timed testing environment.

One good part about legal essay questions is that the scenario presented will contain everything you need to get the answers 100% correct! That is, you will be given all the facts and law you need right in front of you in the fact pattern. The key to legal essays is not overall knowledge of law.  Rather, it is figuring out how to spot the issue(s) and construct the most logically reasoned response. We often have students think about how a home is built to help them keep on track in developing the best approach to an effective answer.  Here is what we mean: 

Step One-"Surveying the Land"... A homebuilder doesn't randomly choose where to build a house. Rather, the area is studied and assessed from every angle possible first.

  • Start by analyzing careful exactly what the question is asking. Take a moment to reflect on what the question presented requires in terms of properly formatting a response. This may seem like a common sense tip but there are many who for various reasons that range from test anxiety to feeling rushed that fail to read and thoroughly understand the question presented. You can't successfully answer a question if you don't understand what it's asking!
  • Read through the facts and law provided to you on the test very carefully and very slowly.
  • Once you have read through it in its entirety once, do it a second time this time noting material facts and law.
  • Many times an essay fact pattern will contain "filler" facts that are there to distract you or send you in the wrong direction. It will be easier to spot these distractors and avoid them if you take the time to read the entire scenario several times first. You are now ready to move on.

Step Two-"Preparing the Blueprint"... A house is not built by creative imagination in real time. The home is built specifically based off a previously prepared detailed written plan. You must prepare the blueprint first.

  • This is the most important part of the exam. It's also the one that most students spend the least amount of time on thereby giving them very little of chance of successful recovery.
  • Thinking or hoping that you will successfully clarify your thoughts as you type them in real time will almost never work out.
  • You should spend as much time preparing your answer as you do writing it.
  • Typically, essay questions provide you 1-2 hours to answer them so using the time properly is critical.
  • You will be provided scrap paper to write on. Use it!

Step Three-"Laying the Foundation"... The foundation is the most critical support structure for the entire house. If it's not done properly, the house will not be structurally sound and could crumple under pressure.

  • The essay response must be organized and laid out in proper order. The organization at the start of your response supports the remainder of the answer.
  • Starting with a strong introductory sentence or two, set the tone. Digressing at any point in your answer will make it appear disorganized and disjointed. Doing it in your foundational introduction is even worse.
  • The saying in the restaurant world is "presentation is half the battle." With an essay answer, presenting it properly from the start cannot be stressed enough.

Step Four-"Building the House"... First the outside structure, then the interior walls, then the details of all the rooms.

  • This is where it's often most helpful to know the conclusion you are hoping to have the reader make in mind before you begin writing your answer. Knowing this, it's easier to "paint the picture" effectively. You cannot accomplish this, however, without preparing the blueprint of your answer first.
  • Don't "build" (write) what isn't necessary-Concise legal is writing is good legal writing. Get to the point. Stick to your blueprint.
  • You know the three to four most important issues to be made now you need to convey them in complete sentences and organized writing that make sense.
  • Close the loop to one point/argument before you move onto another one.

Step Five-"Decorating the House"... Making sure everything inside is perfect and staged optimally for success for selling it.

  • Double-check spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word usage. Make corrections as needed.
  • Remember that many times, online exams will have spell and grammar check features disabled. Errors here result in lost points and that should be completely avoidable.

Final Point: Logical reasoning is a skill set that takes a long time to develop. For paralegals who work in areas that do not require a lot of legal writing, it might be a skill that has faded or hasn't been put to the test in a long time. The most effective way to study for a legal essay exam is to practice legal essay questions in as close to realistic testing environment as possible. As you complete the practice tests, get feedback on your attempts. If you keep the above points in mind and practice several tests, you should be just fine.

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