Joe and Elie share their tips on how law students should prepare for final exams. They suggest getting into the mindset of mentioning concepts in the right place, organizing your notes before test week and even choosing the perfect song to get you hyped for studying. They top it off with their dislikes for final papers!
Above the Law – Thinking Like a Lawyer
It’s Finals Week for Law Students!
Intro: Welcome to Thinking Like a Lawyer with your hosts Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice, talking about legal news and pop culture, all while thinking like a lawyer, here on Legal Talk Network.
Joe Patrice: Hello and welcome to a very special edition of Thinking Like a Lawyer.
Actually, I don’t know if there is anything particularly special about it, but I just thought shake it up a bit.
I am Joe Patrice from Above the Law. With me also is Elie Mystal.
Elie Mystal: Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the mike is so delightful, and since you have no place to go, let me scream into your ear for half an hour.
Joe Patrice: Cool.
Elie Mystal: My dulcet tones. You played your electric crickets.
Joe Patrice: Wizardry, yeah.
Elie Mystal: Against my dulcet wintery tones.
Joe Patrice: I sure did, yeah. See, that’s the power of controlling the soundboard.
Elie Mystal: You don’t get any chestnuts.
Joe Patrice: Hmm, interesting. Yeah. No, it’s snowing here, it’s lovely.
Elie Mystal: Oh, I hate it. I don’t know when I got so old that my knees became a goddamn barometer.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, that’s a problem, isn’t it?
Elie Mystal: Like when you can feel the weather coming in your bones. That’s how good people end up in Florida, right?
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Elie Mystal: That’s not what I am pissed off about today though.
Joe Patrice: Okay.
Elie Mystal: I am pissed off about something way more petty.
Joe Patrice: Which is?
Elie Mystal: I am not verified on Twitter.
Joe Patrice: That’s true. You don’t have a blue check mark.
Elie Mystal: What in the hell do I have to do? Who do I have to literally have sex with to get verified on Twitter?
Joe Patrice: Well, I don’t know anymore. The issue is it used to be a completely arcane process and nobody knew and they were very guarded about letting anybody do it.
Then what they did was create a little bit more open process and there was for a brief period a stated process, whereby you would apply and show that you did certain things, you had a certain verifiable presence and then they would let you be verified.
Elie Mystal: And you got in during that brief window of like transparency.
Joe Patrice: Yes, when there was a process to do it, I took the effort to do the process, yes.
Elie Mystal: I did not because I was under the impression that Twitter verification was something that happened to you when Twitter decided that they should do that for you.
Joe Patrice: And that is how it had been before.
Elie Mystal: And apparently it’s how it is now.
Joe Patrice: Yes.
Elie Mystal: But it’s pissing me off now, because I feel like I am now — wherever I am supposed to be, I am there, in terms of Twitter reach to be verified by these people.
Joe Patrice: I mean are you a recognized Nazi leader, because as far as I can tell that’s how you get verified now.
Elie Mystal: Exactly, I am not a recognized Nazi leader.
Joe Patrice: Well, see, there you go.
Elie Mystal: But the recognized Nazi leaders troll me, which I feel is — which should also lead to verification. If I am important enough to be threatened by the Nazis that are verified, then I should be important enough to be verified.
Joe Patrice: Fair, maybe.
Elie Mystal: You speak from such a level of comfort and privilege.
Joe Patrice: Because I am verified, so I am very much in this world where I just feel things different; the air is sweeter, the perks are better.
Elie Mystal: You got to the top of the tree house and now you are just pulling up the ladder behind you.
Joe Patrice: Right.
Elie Mystal: Modern day Clarence Thomas.
Joe Patrice: No, you can absolutely —
Elie Mystal: Modern day, as if he was dead, or as he was alive during like the Civil War and now he is dead.
Joe Patrice: This podcast is not going to air for a few days so you have still got a chance.
Elie Mystal: Don’t think about that. I don’t need a visit from Treasury.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, you know, I got verified, and it was a harder thing; I mean other people we know did their applications dutifully as well and got rejected, so I was very privileged from the overlords at Twitter to — I put together a package that they liked.
Elie Mystal: Twitter, if you are listening to this podcast, if you are listening to this podcast, how am I not verified, A, but if you are listening to this podcast I would like to be verified now.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. Well.
Elie Mystal: So let’s get on to our topic today. By the time this airs law students will be well into final exam prep, some law schools will actually have started their finals, other law schools will be about a week out, it kind of depends on where you are going. But certainly you will be done with your first set, for 1Ls, you will be done with your first set of law school exams in the coming weeks and so Joe and Elie, we wanted to give you our kind of best tips for final exam preparation.
I will start with one of — I think the most important tips that you can give, getting your music, right? It is important to have, especially if you are taking one of these like eight hour finals, it is important to have the right musical accompaniment, it is important to have the right musical accompaniment the night before perhaps to get you kind of fired up and get your head in the right place.
Now, my personal favorite for finals music is, and I am going to date myself a little bit, although not so much, because there is a reboot, it’s the final fight music to the Rocky movie, that ending bit, the actual fight music, that really inspires me, and I will tell you why.
Joe Patrice: Because Rocky lost.
Elie Mystal: Because Rocky’s goal was not to win, it was to survive.
Joe Patrice: Okay, all right.
Elie Mystal: And that is the mindset you need to be when you take an eight hour final. Adrian, Adrian, I can’t beat this test, but if the test was over and I am still standing I would know for the first time in my life that I ain’t some bum from the neighborhood. That’s you versus torts, all right? You are not going to beat torts, you just need to be standing at the end of the torts exam, Rocky music, that’s my high music for a law school final.
Joe Patrice: Interesting.
Elie Mystal: What’s yours Joe?
Joe Patrice: I think I listened to some Wagner while I did —
Elie Mystal: Speaking of trying to beat the test.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, actually I did, but for — and also speaking of Nazis, like it all comes full circle. No, I did, but for a completely dumb reason, which was my criminal law exam was an issue spotter where he had actually taken the entire ring cycle and just had all the crimes, like the plot written out and was like, use the New York Penal Code and charge for that. It was cute. And so because of that I dug up like the Ride of the Valkyries thing while I rolled through it.
Elie Mystal: I thought you were going to say Mulan.
Joe Patrice: What?
Elie Mystal: I thought you were going to say Mulan.
Joe Patrice: Mulan, yeah, no, no, I am scarred by that.
Elie Mystal: I’ll Make a Man out of You.
Joe Patrice: You do know that I like get PTSD from that song. I had a debater that I coached who played that on blast and on repeat before every debate he did, for like two years, so I don’t get along well with that song anymore.
Elie Mystal: It’s such great high music.
All right, let’s get some more real advice, in your final prep, in your final study before the exam, what are you trying to accomplish with your final cram sessions?
Joe Patrice: Really it’s kind of facility with the rhetoric I feel. The way in which, at least most exams, I mean I know there are people out there in this world who give multiple choice exams, which okay.
Elie Mystal: Congratulations on all your success.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, exactly. But for those that are issue spotting, essay questions, the way in which these are getting graded, you have got to kind of get in the mindset of going backwards. They are not getting graded by you writing something really truly inspiring and beautiful about the problem at hand; they are getting kind of check marks as you mention concepts in the right places for them to be mentioned.
So that facility with the rhetoric is the real key, being able to say when I see problems that involve these concepts, these are the like nine buzzwords that a professor is going to want to hear and what they mean and not empty buzzwords, but really be able to say, this is what Neumeier means in a conflict of laws exam and you know you have to mention that and you also have to mention this other test. And like knowing the rhetoric, the case names, the doctrines, and being able to anytime you see that question know I have to write something that mentions these nine concepts and then just go.
I feel like that’s the most important thing to get used to, because once you know how these exams are getting graded, it becomes a lot easier to excel with them.
Elie Mystal: My big thing the day before, the two days before a final exam, I wasn’t trying to learn anything anymore, like whatever learning I was or wasn’t going to do, that ship had sailed, all I was trying to do at the end was to organize myself, especially if you are taking an open books exam. You are just trying to organize the information that you have so that you can get to it in a kind of timely manner without kind of fumbling all through your notes and your briefs and whatever.
So for instance, taking an evidence exam, you bookmarked or you posted it or you knew where the 13 hearsay; I think there were 13, the 13 hearsay exceptions are; you didn’t try to memorize the exceptions, that’s for the bar exam, for the law school exam, you just want to know where they are so that when you saw the hearsay issue in the evidence issue spotter, all you had to do was go to that part in your book where all the exceptions were written out clearly for you.
In that way you are not trying to cram information into your head that you don’t need to have on permanent recall if you are taking an open book exam, and that was a tip that I got from an actual practicing lawyer about law school, but also kind of talking about how when you are actually practicing, you don’t have to memorize all of the stuff, you have to know where the stuff is.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. And that is exactly true and it’s something that obviously professors run the gamut of skill level, no offense all, but good professors, if they are making the choice to make the exam be open book, if they know what they are doing, that’s what they are testing. They aren’t trying to test you on knowing the concepts; they are trying to test how well you can keep organized and find and apply what you need to apply. That’s the professional skill that they want if they are giving you 24, 36 hours, whatever to work on it.
Elie Mystal: Think about just the name of an issue spotter, the point of an issue spotter question, if you haven’t taken one, and you don’t know — oh God, if you don’t know what we are talking about a couple of days before your exam, you are in trouble. The issue spotter exam is that they give you a very kind of long fact pattern and they tell you to kind of explain all of the — if it’s criminal law, explain all the crimes in this, whatever, explain who is liable if it’s a tort exam in this fact pattern.
So if you think about the concept of an issue spotter, it’s not to have automatic recall of the law, it is to literally be able to spot the issues, and having spotted the issue, then you just need to be able to go back to your notes and find the right answer to the issue that you successfully, correctly, intellectually spotted.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, and that’s true. Like now, I had a lot of exam that were in class, the two hour window exams and those weren’t testing that, they were trying to test you on your ability to recall things, understand and apply, but yeah, the take-homes they are asking with an eye towards, of course you have it in front of you, how well can you find it, and that is a professional skill.
Elie Mystal: How did you deal with time pressure?
Joe Patrice: Pretty well generally. I am a fast test taker, generally speaking. I was like the third person done with the bar exam, like it’s not really a problem for me and I have never known why that is, like I just — I write fast, I think fast, I talk fast.
Elie Mystal: That’s not helpful advice Joe.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. No, I am coaching this very much like Jordan coached when he was with the magic —
Elie Mystal: Just hit the shot, just hit the goddamn shot.
Joe Patrice: Watch me now do that. Yeah. So I don’t really have much to say on that.
Elie Mystal: I am also a very fast test taker. My bar story, I don’t remember when I finished the bar relatively speaking, but I do remember feeling so comfortable with the amount of time that I had to finish the exam that I took a dump — I went to the bathroom and took a dump.
Joe Patrice: Thanks for that. Yeah.
Elie Mystal: Because I was that relaxed. However, I have, unlike you, put some thought into why, and one of the tricks or the mental training that I have done in order to take standardized tests, exams relatively fast is that I do not waste a lot of time telling myself I know the answer to something that I don’t know the answer to. I am very comfortable with my own level of knowledge and my own lack of knowledge.
So when I see a question, it’s the Aristotelian, I know enough to know what I don’t know. So when I see a question, especially in a multiple choice situation that I don’t know the answer to, I do not spend a lot of time trying to guess at it; I just guess and move on, trying to get to a question that I am going to know the answer to as opposed to belaboring the question that I am shooting blind at.
Joe Patrice: That is good advice, yeah.
Elie Mystal: So on the multiple choice exams, if you are taking one in your semester time, try to remember that, try not to belabor the point, either you know it or you don’t, and if you don’t know it, like guess and move on, don’t feel bad, just fight that and just keep moving.
For the take-home exams or for the essay answers and those kinds of things, certainly organization helps you with the speed.
The other thing that helps you I think when you are trying to write fast is to, and this is again a really critical legal skill that’s going to at least be very important by the time you get to the bar exam, the key is to prioritize the information, not merely regurgitate the information.
Before you start writing, before you start typing, take two seconds and try to think about what the most important point is and start there. Don’t just start with saying everything you can think of to say, try to spend an extra two or three seconds organizing your information, prioritizing your information, because when you do that, it will decrease the chances that you waste a lot of time repeating yourself. If you say the most important thing straight up top, then you don’t run the risk of having to refer back to the most important thing three times in your answer because you are afraid that maybe the professor might have missed that you knew that part of the answer.
Joe Patrice: No, that’s fair. So there is a controversial subject, but I think we can — this is a safe enough space that I think we can broach it, other outlines, other people’s outlines, other than the ones you wrote, thoughts?
Elie Mystal: I never wrote an outline.
Joe Patrice: There you go.
Elie Mystal: Why would I waste time doing something that other people are going to do for me and either give me for free or I can literally buy a professional version of it if the course is open-ended enough and basic enough.
No, I never wrote my own — what a gigantic waste of time that was. How could I have played Madden if I was writing outlines?
Joe Patrice: Well, right, I suppose that’s fair. I did a hybrid approach, depending on how good the outline I had from somebody else was, I would write my own. So I probably wrote my own 60-70% of the time and then —
Elie Mystal: Really?
Joe Patrice: Yeah. But yeah, when you find good ones, and that’s the thing, especially when you reach a point where you have access to like a law review sort of situation, where it’s like, oh yeah, the person who headed the law review three years ago wrote this outline and you can take it, that’s the best ones, because now you are dealing with somebody who not only took that class, but obviously excelled in it and that helps. But taking them kind of blind I was against and sometimes they were disjointed and bad.
My best grade of all in law school though, for a variety of reasons I didn’t go to class for most of it, because I was out of town running around, but I discovered that the professional outline that one could order, there was a version of the professional outline that was the exact same authors of the casebook.
Elie Mystal: That’s huge.
Joe Patrice: Which is huge, because a lot of these commercial outlines are very useful in kind of broad concepts, but if they are not tracking your casebook, there is some play there that you are missing. This was the literal people who wrote the casebook wrote a companion outline, so since I didn’t go to class all I did was read that and I demolished the curve in that class, to the point where people got mad.
Elie Mystal: One trick that I didn’t learn until I was a 2L was that I would buy or access the outline that I was going to use before classes started and then have that be my roadmap when I was actually in class.
Joe Patrice: Oh, that’s good.
Elie Mystal: So that you get the outline, now you have got the overview of what’s going happen, you hope, but then if you actually go to class, then you are not taking blind notes, you are kind of putting in the notes that you are taking in class. You are infusing them into the outline that you already have on your computer. I found that to be effective, at least the fact that I was still going to class after I got my job offer, which was not — which is a different podcast episode.
But I only kind of figured that out by the time I was a 2L, because when I was a 1L and I guess there are arguably people who are listening to this podcast who do not know this, when I was a 1L I didn’t know that outlines existed.
Joe Patrice: Oh no.
Elie Mystal: Like I did not know that for most courses somebody in the previous class, the last — previous classes that have taken the class with that professor has actually written out detailed notes and disseminated them around the school, and if you network correctly or if your school has an outline bank or whatever, you can just go and get the notes for your own class and use that as study materials for the final, like I didn’t know that was a thing.
Joe Patrice: You should have figured that out.
Elie Mystal: I mean honestly, until around now, until right before Thanksgiving my 1L year I did not know that these things existed.
Joe Patrice: No, they are super useful.
Elie Mystal: At first it felt like cheating and then it just felt like intelligence, which is kind of like the best cheating, right, like that’s what —
Joe Patrice: Right.
Elie Mystal: You mean I can push the receiver off if the ref doesn’t notice? How else would you catch a pass if you are not going to do that?
Joe Patrice: No, that’s a very useful skill. I feel like a lot of people study for variety of dumb reasons. Like remember I said earlier, I want to make this clarification, I said earlier that the way they grade these things as concepts and you want to be able to know those concepts and put them in, that is not to say that you should approach it as flashcards, which a lot of people do, whether it’s just like — just flashcard, just know this word, because those get very acontextual.
And I know a lot of people who know a bunch of these words but don’t know where they fit within certain kinds of things. So I wanted to clarify that because I do think it’s important to be vocabulary-based, but not to the extent that you are just going through flashcards.
Elie Mystal: Speaking of slightly controversial subjects, what is your feeling on study groups?
Joe Patrice: I never did them. I really didn’t.
Elie Mystal: I mean we need like a conservative. This is bad that we did the same thing. That’s why we are friends.
Joe Patrice: Right. Yeah. No, like what was I going to gain out of sitting and listening to other people other than — I have already heard their opinions because I sat in the class.
Elie Mystal: For me, especially at Harvard, where you have the reputation of —
Joe Patrice: Oh wait, did you go to Harvard?
Elie Mystal: I did.
Joe Patrice: Oh, interesting. I wondered how —
Elie Mystal: For college and law school.
Joe Patrice: So for anybody who is wondering, the 20 minute mark is where that bet ends. Go on.
Elie Mystal: Which has a reputation for being somewhat competitive, the one time I did it, it was very obvious that the only reason why everybody was there was to kind of see what everybody else knew, to see if they were like the dumb one. And once they felt satisfied — like there was no sharing of best practices in these study groups; it was peacocking.
And granted, I don’t say that those were the only study groups available, that was the one time I tried, but yes, for the most part I was by myself, with my own handle of gin and outline study — not my own obviously and not going into the group setting to study.
Joe Patrice: You are talking about this and you got me thinking about The Paper Chase, what’s the thing in their study group which falls apart in exactly the same ways as you just described? But like it’s really kind of jarring how bad they are insulting each other, like the insults are just lame and I am trying to remember what it was they call — they started yelling at each other when that fell apart.
Elie Mystal: I don’t remember. Last question, any advice for people trying to complete final papers?
Joe Patrice: Oh, papers?
Elie Mystal: You know where the real intelligence comes out to shine.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. I mean papers are rough because you have got to like — because there is —
Elie Mystal: You almost actually have to know something to do the paper.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. God, I hated that. I hated when it was paper. I only had like two papers really and one was — actually, I had a ton of papers, let me rephrase, I only had two classes really that ran on papers and one of them was a kind of weekly seminar thing where it was constant reaction papers and stuff and that was fine. But like a, you have got to get to the end of the year with your paper, it was actually a graduation requirement, that thing, because time limits are good, man.
Elie Mystal: I was — finally we disagree on something. I was very good at papers for both the graduation requirement term paper and the few like small seminar classes that I had that were entirely paper dependent.
For the small seminar stuff, just argue with the professor, that’s such a slam dunk easy way to me to get a B+ or better grade. You get an A if you argue well and you get a B+ for the good college try. But you almost don’t have to spend a lot of time researching a lot of law, you just have to spend a lot of time listening to your professor and trying to prove them wrong and just researching the law that you can to try to prove your professor wrong.
The professor has obviously already thought about it all and is obviously going to be right and I guess there is always the risk if you are a certain kind of person or if you have chosen incorrectly of getting the professor who is offended that you are arguing with him. But in my experience all the professors I tried this with, they appreciated the fact that I was listening to them enough, that I was paying attention to them enough.
Joe Patrice: To ignore them completely.
Elie Mystal: To disagree with their central thesis as opposed to doing some other kind of random good law kind of thing. So that was a trick that at least worked for me in a seminar session.
For the long-term papers, the easiest way to get through them is to just make it such a hyper-focused area of law. Do not go broad. Do not go general. Go on the most specific thing you can find, and then, first of all, if you are lucky, you might just end up in statutory interpretation, which to me is a lot — in a law school sense a lot easier than a constitutional interpretation or anything like that or case law.
But also like, you were talking about how time limits are good, it’s limiting the scope of what you are required to know in order to make a cogent point. I think my 3L paper was on FDA Regulation of Hearing Aids. So like super specific. I was very good at admin law so I wanted to do something in the admin space. My mother works in the healthcare industry, so I wanted to be able to kind of use her, kind of 25:46, like a bunch of stuff went into that, to pick that topic, but that topic is such a specified hyper-focus thing that I didn’t have to know a lot, I had to know a lot about a little and that was a much easier kind of hill to climb than some of the topics that other people did.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. I am one of those folks who — part of the advantage of a legal career is most often when you are writing for a specific point of view, advocacy that you need done and you are doing it within a time limit, I am perfectly fine. I could bang out three or four motions right now, motions in limine right now; you come to me and say, here are the things we want to knock out, go.
Elie Mystal: It sounds like in The Big Lebowski, you want a motions in limine? I can get you one.
Joe Patrice: I can get you one. You wouldn’t know.
Elie Mystal: There are ways.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, there are ways. And I can do those sorts of things, but the idea of, you don’t really have a topic and you have got a year to deal with it is the exact opposite of how I like to go about writing. I like being able to say there is a thing that needs to be accomplished and let’s get that done and those long papers are just not my way of doing it.
It’s why legal writing I love and the Above the Law writing I love. It’s also, you find a story, it’s a thing that needs to be told on a relatively short deadline, that’s where I want to — that’s my sweet spot.
Elie Mystal: That’s all I have got. I hope this is helpful if you are preparing to start taking your first round of finals.
Joe Patrice: Or your next round of finals, frankly. I mean people can always learn things from us; you especially, because you went to Harvard twice.
Elie Mystal: Remember, look, if you want to clerk, this is incredibly important.
Joe Patrice: True.
Elie Mystal: And if you don’t, it couldn’t matter — it barely matters.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. Yeah.
Elie Mystal: It barely matters. Don’t get a C and you will be fine.
Joe Patrice: Right. I think that’s fair. It also depends on when you do. Don’t get a C in your first year; after that whatever.
Anyway. Okay, so that was that. Thanks for listening everybody. You should be following the show, subscribing, doing all those things, writing reviews, following us at Above the Law. You should be following — we don’t do this enough, you should be following the Above the Law Twitter account.
You should also be following @JosephPatrice, @ElieNYC. You should be listening to the other shows on the Legal Talk Network. Listen to Book of Business and The Jabot from our colleagues here at Above the Law.
And with all of that, thanks so much. We are entering the holidays here, or at least one holiday, so we are going to be — we should be able to still have — if we don’t have an episode next week, that’s why, but it looks like we are going to be able to. So talk to you then.
Elie Mystal: Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.
Above the Law's Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice examine everyday topics through the prism of a legal framework.
Firms are signaling their strength in a COVID impacted economy.
Despite Trump's urgings, you'd be risking possible felonies.
Why doesn't the Attorney General know how many times we can vote?
Taking stock of the law after a week of consistent violations.
Online exams have a bathroom break problem.
Although this COVID party did stop.