How To Ace Your Exams


As some of you may know, I’m a (fictional) hiring partner at a large and prestigious West Coast law firm, overrun with (fictional) resumes each fall from students hoping for jobs. Earlier this year, I wrote a column for the law school newspaper at the (non-fictional) University of Minnesota. It was all about why my (fictional) firm doesn’t recruit there, and doesn’t like to hire their (non-fictional) students. I was hoping to repurpose some of that column here, but that’s hard, since every firm wants Harvard students, and no one ever gets rejected. Wait, you got rejected by a firm? Really? There must be something wrong with you.

At the end of my (non-fictional) 2L summer, the hiring partner at the firm where I worked told everyone he didn’t care what grades we got 3L year, because we all had job offers and as long as we graduated, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed him. I thought it would be much more fun if it was really a test: Tell them we don’t care, and then see what happens. The ones who get Cs, we fire anyway. Because even if a partner tells you one thing, you need to learn to read their minds. It doesn’t matter what the assignment is: You need to do what they want you to do, not what they tell you to do. In fact, you need to do not only what they want you to do, but what they would want you to do if only they knew that thing was possible, whether or not it is actually possible, whether or not they would be able to do it themselves, and whether or not anyone could actually articulate it, either in words or merely in his head. (And if you followed all of that, you may have a job waiting for you at a law firm near you.)

In a lot of ways, this is exactly what law school exams are about. You don’t want to just answer the question you’ve been given; you want to read the professor’s mind and give her the answer she’s looking for. Or even better, the answer she doesn’t even know she’s looking for until she sees it on your paper and then has to go re-grade everyone else’s exam using your answer as the model. Even if it has absolutely nothing to do with the question. That’s the trick. I once (fictionally) turned in a civil procedure exam with absolutely no mention of jurisdictional issues, but merely with my grandmother’s gefilte fish recipe and six lucky numbers for that week’s Massachusetts lotto drawing. I (non-fictionally) got a B-minus. But that’s because grades are random, not because my answer wasn’t exactly what the professor was looking for. Because it was. Really. (Non-fictionally, the reason I got a B-minus was because I somehow got it into my head that the entire exam was all about privity when, in fact, it wasn’t. But I’d rather not dwell on that.)

Given all of this, my first piece of (fictional) advice should be obvious: Don’t read the instructions. That’s the biggest trap law students fall into while taking exams. They worry about the stated word count, or the time limit, or the restrictions on what materials you can consult while taking the exam. These things don’t matter. Remember, you’re not trying to answer the question being asked, in the way it’s being asked, with the restrictions being placed on you. You’re trying to give the professor what she wants. That means word counts, time limits, and the restriction against using the Internet to Google the answer during the exam all go out the window. Anyone can follow the rules; you’re trying to read their minds. And if you need to do a Lexis search to help you out, who does the Registrar think he is trying to get in the way of a young lawyer-to-be using every available resource to help him win the case? It’s an obstruction of justice, that’s what it is. Same with the eight-hour time limit. A good lawyer can get them to accept an exam three weeks late. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

My second piece of advice: Wingdings. You never know who’s peering over your shoulder in an in-class exam, or has a telescope trained on your window during a take-home. Write in the Wingdings font so no one can decode anything. Not even the professor. Remember, you’re aiming at the subconscious, so it’s okay if on the conscious level, they can’t read it. Following this piece of advice got me a thumbs-up in Environmental Law. So you know it works. (Editor’s Note: A thumbs-up, in the Wingdings font, is actually the letter “C.”)

Third, and finally: You don’t need advice. You go to Harvard. And if you’re a 2L or 3L, no one will ever see your grades anyway. Or ask about them. And if they do, you can lie, or just remind them you went to Harvard and they didn’t. Since graduating (fictionally) in 1987, no one has ever asked me about my (non-fictional) B-minus in Civil Procedure. Also, since graduating (non-fictionally) in 2005, no one has ever asked me about my (fictional) A-plus in Civil Procedure. See, I’ve even confused you about my actual grades. And me. This whole (fictional) stuff is confusing. More confusing than a law school exam.

Good luck. You’ll do fine. And even if you don’t, you’ll still be okay.

Anonymous Lawyer blogs at Learn more about his firm, and why they won’t hire you, at Or buy his book.

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