Fenno’s Guide to Writing a Good Exam

Let me begin by saying that the “free press” in this country is a sham, and The Record is no exception. I recently submitted two pieces for publication in this paper: one, an exposé entitled “Time-Travelling SS Officers at Harvard” (with chilling video evidence), and the other, a detailed proposal for replacing the Harvard Law School crest with a picture of an orca devouring the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Both of these pieces were rejected by the Harvard Law Record Editorial Board, on the grounds that they were a) badly spelled and b) “not a constructive contribution to the serious conversations currently taking place on our campus.”

Rest assured that I will continue to speak out on these matters, regardless of what the Dean has to say about it (I don’t think she’s said anything yet, but in case she does), or the student-journalist junta that controls this so-called newspaper. However, in the interest of actually reaching my HLS readership this week, I’ve chosen a “safe” topic upon which to expound my wisdom: HOW TO WRITE A GOOD EXAM.

I have many years’ experience taking exams at Harvard Law School. You can get your advice from LexisNexis or Barbri or whatever other two-bit corporate scammer is clogging up your inbox these days, or you can get your advice from me, who has been in the wars and lived to tell the tale. Your choice.

First piece of advice: Get comfortable.

To write a good exam, it’s important to be as relaxed as possible. Where you take your exam makes all the difference. Pick somewhere that makes you feel at home. If you’re looking for a good place in the Harvard area, I’ve completed a number of exams at Shays on JFK Street. If you prefer to work downtown, then you might consider Carrie Nation, which has a very good whisky selection—though, fair warning, the staff does not react kindly to one’s taking a mid-exam nap (another practice I highly recommend) on their billiard table.

If you have an in-class exam, then I suggest bringing along five fingers of your preferred liquor in an opaque thermos. To deflect suspicion, periodically cup your hands around the base of the thermos, say “brrr,” and snuggle forward a little in your seat. No one will be the wiser.

#2: Eat a good breakfast.

We all know that the outcome of a case is largely determined by what the judge ate for breakfast. A good study technique is to spend some time researching and sampling representative breakfasts from various jurisdictions throughout the U.S., and thinking about how each breakfast might affect your ruling, were you a judge. Are you full or hungry? Gassy or constipated? Following each meal, how much time did you need to accomplish your optimum morning dump, and do you think a judge could realistically incorporate the full length of that window into his or her busy schedule?

#3: Take control of the exam question.

Remember, all exam questions are purely hypothetical. Their reality, such as it is, arises out of a knowing collusion between writer and reader, who each sustain separately in their minds the same agreed-upon fiction. DO NOT ALLOW YOUR PROFESSOR TO BECOME THE TYRANT OF YOUR IMAGINARIUM. Anything is possible in the world of the mind! Repeat to yourself as you read the question: “This is not real. This is not real. I am in control.” With practice, you will find that you can make the question say whatever you wish.

#4: Deny everything.

Your professor’s framing of the facts may not be advantageous to your client. Concede nothing at this stage; it could be used against you later. Bring in character witnesses to discredit your opponents. In the past I have often called to the stand various widows and orphans whom the relevant defendant/plaintiff had defrauded for personal gain. Public sympathy for widows and orphans is at a low ebb at the moment, however, so your most unimpeachable witness these days is probably a well-trained labrador retriever. You will have explain why, within the fictional universe of the exam question, animals have the power of speech; but this can be done in a couple sentences. Most juries, having had personal experience of both species, will readily trust a dog’s word over a human’s.

For questions involving medical matters, I’ve invented an expert witness named Dr. Rex Alvarez, M.D., a brilliant but troubled surgeon who is forced to constantly justify his radical methods to philistine hospital administrators. You’re more than welcome to borrow him for your exam. Think carefully before you do: his biting sarcasm, rakish good looks, and unorthodox approach to medicine have sometimes worked against his credibility on the stand. However, many open-minded judges have great respect for Rex’s expertise and integrity.

#5: Take a nap midway through.

See above. As somebody once said (possibly Cass Sunstein) sleep knits up the ravelled sleeve of care. You should plan to sleep anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours, depending on how fucked up your care-sleeve is and how good you are at knitting.

#6: Cite as many cases as possible.

If you can think of a case that dealt with a related issue, throw it in. If you don’t think the holding supports the way your argument is wandering, invent a subsequent case that reverses the holding completely. This is easier than “distinguishing” the case, and quicker (see below).

#7: Don’t spend more than ten minutes on any one question.

After that, you’re just second-guessing yourself.

I hope this has been helpful. Just remember: you cannot fail out of Harvard Law School. God knows I’ve tried.


Fenno has been a student at Harvard Law School since at least 1961. He has no current plans to graduate.
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