Monday, April 15, 2013

Conclusory Statements

You might have heard that your argument was conclusory, and as exams approach, you might want to know what this means, and how can you fix it.

Typically, if your work suffers from a conclusory-style analysis, you’ll just see the comment “conclusory” on your paper. But there are really two types of “conclusory” statements. It’s important for us to distinguish between them because each presents a different problem for the student and requires a different response.

•The first kind of conclusory statement is one that states a legal conclusion. This occurs when there’s an insufficient legal foundation to provide authority to support the statement.

•The second kind states a factual conclusion. This appears as either a restatement of the facts in the hypothetical or a judgment about what the facts mean without explaining the basis for the judgment.

Typically, however, the lines between the two blur and the sentence is conclusory for one or both reasons. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s one or the other except to recognize why it’s conclusory and to fix it.

For example, does your analysis start with a "yes" or "no" answer? If you hadn’t already figured out, it’s not the conclusion you reach, but the way you get there that’s of interest to your professor. It’s a pretty safe bet your professor isn’t looking for a “yes” or “no” response unless you’re answering a short answer question. Even assuming this problem called for a direct answer, it would be unlikely you’d begin with one. Instead, you’d have to work your way through an analysis of the facts in light of the relevant rule before you could even suggest a possible outcome.

Remember, without the legal definition to provide a context, there’s no legal basis to form your analysis; and second, without applying the facts to show how the law applies, all you have is an assertion. Using facts instead of merely reciting them can be a remedy to this problem. Be aware not to simply make declaratory statements, and also beware - it’s rarely a good idea to begin a sentence with such words as word “clearly” or “obviously.” Typically, the facts in your exams are so purposely ambiguous that nothing is ever “clear.” Chances are if you’re finding clarity, you’re missing the real issue!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Active Reading

When working thought hypothetical problems, multiple choice questions and during exams, you should read the questions "actively" -- but, what does it mean to read actively? “Active reading” means that you search for and identify the following:

The sub-area of law: when you study for a specific class or walk into your exam, you know the subject matter, but there are still wide open categories and you must narrow it down specific sub-topics. A critical component of reading actively is reading in context -- on exams, it’s your job to provide the context.

The legal relationship between the parties: it is important to pay attention to the legal significance of parties’ relationships. The nature of the relationship is often of major significance to a resolution of the problem. Often, professors will use such relationships to test your ability to note distinctions in how the law treats such relationships (you may be dealing with fiduciary duties, different standards of care, and additional obligations imposed by law).

Amounts of money, dates, locations, quantities, and ages: be sure to pay attention to dollar amounts, dates and times, quantities of items, jurisdictional information, and any ages if they appear in the fact pattern. These details can be important for so many reasons: imagine skipping over a time sequence of events in a contractual relationship, then your analysis of the offer, acceptance, and requirements for performance may be way off. Dates also signal statute of limitations problems. Ages are generally tied to a statutory issue (consider statutory rape) or a standard of care (fiduciary duty) while money and location information tend to indicate jurisdictional thresholds. Reading carefully assures that you won’t miss critical signals.

The words “oral” and “written”: these words figure prominently in contract, property, and evidence questions. They signal potential issues with the Statute of Frauds, enforceability of promises, transactions with respect to land, and even admissibility of certain kinds of evidence. Also, note language that signals a writing or oral conversation i.e, a letter, a fax, or a telephone call.

“Active reading” does not include:
Adding facts to the problem: unless you are told to do so specifically by the call of the question, you are never to add your own facts. In most cases, you are given all the facts you need and should use only those facts.

Making assumptions: never make assumptions -- this will lead you astray and into dangerous exam territory. Remember, an assumption is not the same as a logical inference, which often must be made from the facts you’re given. (When working with a set of facts, you may need to draw factual inferences and connect these inferences to the dictates of the rule.)

Never confuse your parties: as you read and before you write, make absolutely certain that you are clear about who is doing what to whom. You don’t want to confuse the actors.

As always, you can refer to Mastering the Law School Exam for further tips on practicing your active reading skills.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Several students have come into our offices in the past couple of weeks, and expressed concerns about either being behind with outlines or wanting to know where to begin.  Luckily, spring break is just around the corner, and can be a great time to catch up on your classes - and your outlines.

Your outlines are a great place to adequately make sense of the concepts from your respective classes and figure out the relationships between these concepts. It is important to know how to outline, as well as understand what your outline should include.  The purpose of your outline is two-fold:

1. Your outline is a vehicle for you to learn the law because it requires you to organize and record the information for your understanding and retrieval. In doing this, you must take apart the individual rules and connect them in a way that reflects how the rules interact as a whole - it is not enough to know the individual rule, but you must also know how the rules work together.

2. It helps you prepare for exams because while writing your outline you have worked through the analysis of issues you are likely to find on your exam. Your outline will contain all you need to know when studying for exams, and in the way you need to know it.

Where do you start?

There are many places to begin - your syllabus will provide a sequence and structure for your outline; likewise, the table of contents in your casebook will help you by dividing topics. These can both be places to start in determining how to sequence your outlines, and what topics need to be covered.

How do you format an outline?

We suggest a regular outline format with a bullet or numerical scheme - it doesn't matter which format you decide; the point is that you will want to rank concepts, and identify main topics and subtopics. Usually, there is a logical sequence to follow in analysing a problem based on the construction of the rule, and this hierarchy should be worked out in your outline (again, your syllabus or the table of contents from your textbook are great places to see the hierarchy; hornbooks may help with subheadings, too).
The real work of outlining comes from synthesizing the material so that you can differentiate between the main topics and the subtopics; and do not be afraid to go outside your casebook and notes for help - hornbooks are a great resource for explaining material.

Once you have your main topics and subtopics, then you can begin to fill in the pieces to provide substance and meaning by filling in the outline with definitions, cases and examples.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Studying with Multiple Choice Questions

Last week, we discussed the importance of using hypothetical questions as a study tool.  You can also study for your classes by using multiple choice questions.  Regardless of whether you are doing hypothetical questions or multiple choice questions, do you know what it means to study from the questions?

Merely going through the process of answering the questions isn't enough and "doing questions" may be a waste of your time. Instead, you should learn how to analyze the question and be able to reason through the problem to arrive at the correct answer.

What does this mean? If you can only partially answer the question, or if you are only getting multiple choice questions incorrect, ask yourself:

What does it mean to only know a portion of the material?

Are the correct answers "right" for the right reason or did you answer for the wrong reason or just get lucky, and do you know why the incorrect answers are wrong?

Did you know the law; were you able to identify the controlling law?

Did you correctly read the facts; did you add facts that threw you off course; did you correctly read the question; and did you apply the correct rule to the facts?

Make sure that you are not just going through the motions, but instead really learning the law as you go along by actively learning from the question. It is not cheating to look up a rule, consult your outline, or read a sample answer to help you build an analysis -- you will learn through the repetition and reinforcement of actively doing the work.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Using Hypotheticals to Study

Writing out hypotheticals is a great way to study during the course of the semester. Becoming familiar with the structure of essay questions and how to respond will go a long way in helping you prepare for exams.

By now, you know that your professors expect an exam answer that is a well-reasoned and well-organized, and should contain an articulate analysis of the relevant rules of law with respect to the facts. The best way to do get adequate preparation is by writing out and practicing from prior exams – this is why many professors have copies of their old exams on the Library website. You should begin writing sample answers as soon as you have covered enough law to analyze a factual situation.

When asked if it is too soon to start working through hypothicals, remember:

1. Begin working with practice questions as soon as you have covered a topic.

2. Start simple and build to the complex. Begin with single issue problems and work your way to increasingly more complex problems until you have covered every principle that has been covered in your course.

3. Vary the type of essay that you answer when practicing. Be sure to work with both short essays and long, complex fact patterns with multiple issues and parties. Each presents a different challenge in issue spotting and organization.

4. Use exam questions to let you see the relationships between concepts and how topics come together. Hypotheticals can help by showing you the connections in the law.

5. Develop your reading skills as carefully as your writing skills. Pay attention to the exam directions. The only way to know exactly how your professor expects you to address a question comes from experience in reading your professor’s exams.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Life After First Year

Now that you are in your second semester, many of you have started this think past your first year of law school.  Below, you will find tips from Dean Taylor on life after first year. 

As always, we are here to help if you have any questions or concerns.

Life After First Year
By Charlotte D. Taylor, Assistant Dean for Student Services, Touro Law Center

So what are your steps after the 1st semester of law school? Below are some SUGGESTIONS. Depending on your law school and your needs, you may do more or less than what I indicated below.

1) Assess your game plan - part I - start with grades.

If you did not do as well as you hoped - find out why and how to improve. Meet with your professors, but don't argue over points. Make sure to find out what he or she was looking for, so you can give the professor what she or he wants on the exam this semester. Make sure to reach out to your advisor, Academic Support or Academic Development or Student Services if you need help improving your study skills.

2) Assess your game plan - part II - meet with your career counselor.

Most law students have a goal of a certain job or working in a certain industry, so find out what is recommended or what employers are looking for. Many employers do NOT look at transcripts or grades. Many want a resume, cover letter and a writing sample. Many are concerned with experience, so find out from your career services counselor how you can get experience.

3) Assess your game plan part III - what else is there?

Find out what opportunities exist outside of classes. Research and investigate about clinics, externships, clubs and more. Meet with your faculty advisor if you want to specialize in an area to see what he or she recommends. Meet with the Dean of Students, he or she may be able to help as well.

4) Assess your game plan part IV - the bar exam.

Don't ignore it. Make a plan now to take a prep course or to save money so you don't have to work while studying for the bar. Also, if you are planning to go to another state, find out about completing the bar application for that state.

Once you have all of the facts and research, make a plan for the next two or three years. You should have an idea of what classes you want to take, what you need to do to maintain or improve your grades, and what experience you will get. You should also have a plan for immediately after graduation for studying and taking the bar exam.

Start networking with alumni or guest speakers at the law school and get ready to make a name for yourself because before you know it - it will be time to plan that graduation party.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Taking Notes in Class

It is important to continue to take good notes in class.  Dean Taylor was a guest blogger last year, and posted her Top Three Do's and Don'ts for Taking Notes - you can access her post here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Semester

Welcome back to school!  We hope you had a great semester, and that your grades reflect how hard you worked last semester. 

Unfortunately, not everybody is happy with all of their grades, and often turn to us for advice.  Below, you will find a link a prior blog post -- this posts will help you with what to do next:
What to do if you get a Disappointing Grade.

And, as always, our doors are always open to help and advice alone the way.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Exam Prep

Preparing for final exams can sometimes be overwhelming. While the process gets easier after your first semester of law school, there are things you can do to make this process easier now. Below, you will find links to three prior blog posts -- these posts will help you as you prepare for final exams:

Exam Prep I,

Exam Prep II,


Exam Prep III.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Reading Cases

Reading and preparing for class is sometimes time consuming and overwhelming for those new to law school.  While the process gets easier, there are things you can do to improve these skills early in the semester.  Below, you will find three links to prior blog posts -- these posts will help you improve your reading skills from the very beginning of the semester:

The How of Reading Cases,

Reading Cases,


Prof. McKinney’s “TOP 10 Ways to Save Time and Net Better Results when Reading in Law School”.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Class Notes

Welcome to Touro Law! Over the next few weeks, we will be updating the blog with tips to assist you in making a successful transition to law school.

One of the first questions that new law students ask is what should be included in class notes - below are things to consider:

Going to class and actually listening to your professor is one of the most important steps in the learning process. Make sure to listen to what is being said, and to how it is said. Also, pay attention to vocabulary and write down every legal term of art. Your goal in class is to learn to speak the language of the law.

While in class, your notes are to capture what occurred on a particular day, allowing you to relive what was covered (cases discussed, questions asked, comments made, etc.). Taking notes in law school will be different than notes you have previously taken; you’re not expected to make a transcript of each class, which begs the question, what should you write? Below are a few pointers of what should be in your notes:

• Points, questions, and observations your professor makes about the cases. Pay attention to how your professor “thinks” about a case, which is quite different from the basic information you already have in your case briefs.

• All the questions the professor asks in class. Remember, with some professors, all you get are questions and it is a huge mistake to overlook the questions while waiting for “answers” (because "answers" are not likely to come). The answers may even be the questions because the answers you’re looking for are in the questions that the professor asks of you and the material. In these cases, your job will be to learn to ask the same types of questions - soon you’ll be the one asking the questions, finding the problems in the case, and the inconsistencies in the court’s reasoning.

• Write down every hypothetical and example. These hypotheticals are often reincarnated on final exams -consider every hypo as a potential exam question and write it down, and don't forget to write down the variations, too - professors are known to present one problem and then change the facts.

• Comments relating to policy, legal theory, and doctrine. These are tips to how your professor thinks about the law, and how you should be learnig to think about it.

• Everything written on the blackboard, dry erase board, presented in a PowerPoint presentation, etc. Law professors are traditionally so “low-tech” that even writing on the board is a major event - when it happens, you can be sure it’s important.

• Legal terms: As discussed previously, since your job is to learn the language of the law, make sure you write down the words, phrases, and legal terms of art associated with the topics as they are discussed.

• Steps of analysis; tests; standards: This is not the same as the “black letter rule.” That’s in your casebook, the hornbook, and every commercial outline. What we are talking about is the way your professor presents the rule to you and the way she works through the sequence of analysis. Listen for such signal language as “there are two questions to be asked” or “the patterns to look for are. . .” When you hear these clues, you’ll be able to detect that your professor is about to give you the guides for your analysis. Write it down.

Now is also a great time to mention Professor Darrow-Kleinhaus' book, Mastering the Law School Exam - you will find pointers like these and more there. Mastering the Law School Exam is going to be a great resource for you throughout your academic career, not just for exam prep, but all aspects of your legal education.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fall 2012 Teaching Assistant Application Process - FAQ

Many of you stopped by our offices or have emailed to ask about the TA program for the Fall, including what is required to become a TA and how to apply. Below you will find the answer to many of the questions that have been asked, as well as how to apply.

What is required to be a TA?
A desire and ability to work well with others and a solid academic record.

What does a TA do?
A TA leads a small study group section in "learning how to learn the law" by showing how successful students go about the process of thinking about and integrating course material.

What is my time commitment?
You must be available to attend one of the required weekly training sessions; and you will need to be available for a TA session (100 minutes) one day a week.

How do I apply?
Please send an email to Nancy Chanin expressing why you are interested in becoming a TA. Attach your resume, and include a phone number and email where you can be reached over the summer. We accept applications now and through the summer.

What is the review process and when will I be contacted?
We review the applications following the release of spring semester grades. We contact all applicants and may ask to meet with you. While grades and class performance are very important, you must also be able to work well with others, show initiative, direct group discussions, and have a genuine interest and ability to help other students develop their analytical skills.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Last Minute Outlining

As the semester comes to an end, students scramble to complete their course outlines. If students fail to understand the purpose of outlining, however, these efforts can be a waste of time. First and foremost, outlining is part of the review process and should be done on a weekly basis throughout the semester. But, if you haven’t been outlining diligently throughout the semester (which can be quite common), don’t despair! Here are few tips that can help you get back on track.

Focus on Rules, not on Cases – The most common mistake I see when reviewing course outlines is documents that are full of facts about the cases. If you don’t know already, most professors do not require you to reference the facts from individual cases on your exams. There are, of course exceptions, so ask your professors for more detail on this point.

Assuming for a moment that your professors follow the majority approach, they will want to see correctly defined legal principles on your bluebook exams. If that’s true, then having lots of details from the cases in your outline is not very helpful. This is particularly true if your outline looks like a series of case briefs where the cases dominate and the holding is buried somewhere in the middle of the brief.

Instead, flip this orientation on its head. Reduce the case down to a single sentence that represents your takeaway message. This takeaway message will be some variation of the rule announced by the case. Do not simply delete the facts (or reasoning) from the cases, however, because they still have a role. Once you have extracted the rule, the material facts from the case act as an illustration of when that rule will apply. The facts, in a sense, define the rule, but do not include every fact from the case in your illustration. Before including additional material from the cases, ask yourself a simple question. Was this information relevant to the court’s resolution of the case? In most instances, all you need is 2-3 sentences from a case to help illustrate the rule. Don’t be afraid to cut out unnecessary material. Because making these sorts of judgments is an important step in developing your analytical skills.

Create an Outline that is Relational, Not Chronological – Particularly when they are pressed for time, students tend to create an outline that chronologically lists cases in the order they were discussed in class. This may be appropriate in some instances, but keep in mind that professors often have pedagogical reasons for teaching material in a certain order. For example, my contracts professor – a long, long time ago - started the course with the concept of damages. This made sense because it was a relatively straightforward concept that we, as new 1Ls, could handle early in the semester. It made no sense, however, to begin my outline with this topic because damages are the end of the contracts story.

The processor of organizing an outline chronologically and logically is much easier if you follow my first step of focusing on rules, not cases. With the rules at the top of each case discussion, it is much easier to see which rules are related to each other. In some instances, the relationship will take this form - a rule, exceptions to that rule, and jurisdictionally different approaches to the rule. This is the simplest level of organization.

Another level of organization might, for example, illustrate the order in which you should address concepts. Using civil procedure as an example, the general idea of subject matter jurisdiction would come before the individual concepts of arising under jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction. Then, I would address diversity jurisdiction and its attendance principles – domicile and its definition, complete diversity, corporate diversity (dual domicile), amount in controversy, etc. Once I have completed this section, I am ready to work on arising under jurisdiction as a separate, but related, concept.

This approach of categorizing and organizing will help your exam performance in two important ways. First, it will be much easier to remember the concepts if they are organized in a logical way as opposed to a long list of several dozen ideas. Second, exam answers will follow, at least partially, the organization in your outline. The organized principles will act like a path or trail in the woods, which will keep you (and the professor reading your bluebook exam) from getting lost.

Include the Hypos – Be sure that your outline includes every hypo used in class. Organizationally, the hypos act like the cases – they are just another illustration of the application of a rule to a set of factual circumstances. The hypos may be even more valuable than the cases, however, because they are strong indicators that your professor thinks a rule needs further explanation. If a rule is worthy of further explanation, a fact pattern addressing the issue is worthy of inclusion on an exam.

Shorten the Outline as Exams Approach – A long outline is not a problem as long as you have been diligent about removing irrelevant material. Initially, a longer outline will help you reconnect with principles that were covered weeks, or even months, earlier in the year. As exams approach, shorten the outline. You can save the larger version as a reference tool in a separate file. Eventually, a 40+ page outline can be reduced down to a couple of pages in the days immediately before an exam. These few remaining pages represent the course’s key ideas and organizational concepts. Finally, memorize this “skeletal” outline and use it to organize your examination answers.

Professor Herbert N. Ramy

ASP Director

Suffolk University Law School

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Prof. McKinney’s “TOP 10 Things That Get In Your Way When Reading in Law School”

1. Reading with a closed mind.

2. Panicking over confusion.

3. Reading for too long in one sitting without a break or consciously (or unconsciously) rewarding yourself for studying for long hours rather than rewarding yourself for studying efficiently and effectively.

4. Not scheduling enough reading time to understand the material, or failing to skim less important information and slow down when hitting key language.

5. Not scheduling at all – “reading until I get it.” Students who adopt a “reading until I get it” mantra sometimes also reward themselves (consciously or unconsciously) for working long hours rather than for working efficiently and effectively (a better goal).

6. Reading cases in isolation from one another and from surrounding material in the casebook (most especially, from Notes and Problems).

7. Reading as if you are still in your prior discipline. Different disciplines benefit from different reading strategies and have different purposes. Look, for example, how lawyers use policy v. how political scientists might view policy.

8. Looking for the rules in exact words – often rules have to be inferred from the action the court took.

9. Perfectionism: (a) Writing perfect briefs. (b) Striving to have the perfect answer in class. (c) Writing down everything during class (d) Reading sequentially without being willing to take some guesses as to meaning and test them as you read on later.

10. Lack of attention to either (a) detail (what’s the “exact” legal question in front of the court – what did the court expect the parties to show to establish a claim or defense in this court?); or (b) the big picture (how does this case help me better understand this area of law? What are the broad-sweeping issues that courts are influenced by in this area of law?)

This posting was submitted by Ruth Ann McKinney, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Professor McKinney has served as Director of UNC Law's first-year legal writing program and its academic success program for over twenty years, including three as Assistant Dean for Legal Writing & Academic Success. She is the author of Reading Like a Lawyer (Carolina Academic Press 2004), Core Grammar for Lawyers (an online, self-instructional tool available at, and Legal Research: A Practical Guide and Self-Instructional Workbook (5th ed. with Scott Childs 2009).

Copyright 2011 by Professor Ruth Ann McKinney, the UNC School of Law. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Prof. McKinney’s “TOP 10 Ways to Save Time and Net Better Results when Reading in Law School”

1.Never, ever read when you’re too tired to get it. Take a break.

2. Read in an enjoyable spot that is conducive to efficient work and a sense of serenity and security. Don’t read where you’re likely to fall asleep.

3. When reading a case, find the exact legal question in front of the court, how the court answered that question, and what other legal options the court rejected. Take good, efficient notes that succinctly summarize the important take-away points. If you’re confused, hang on and read surrounding cases and supporting material included in that section of the casebook before giving up.

4. Read the notes and problems before class so you can clarify confusion AND discover areas that are beyond your present ability to comprehend.

5. Don’t park your common sense at the door. Bring your prior knowledge and common sense into what you’re reading. Embrace your thoughts and reactions (“hear” what you’re thinking about as you read – lots of valid ideas lurk in the questions you’re asking yourself or the associations you’re making).

6. Separate confusion over language and writing style from confusion over content/subject matter. If it’s the language that’s a problem, try rewriting the material, using a dictionary, drawing inferences from context, reading more slowly, or talking it through out loud. Once you’re past any language barriers, try making lists or charts, or restate the rules to solidify your conceptual understanding and identify questions blocking your progress.

7. Make it real. Don’t let the study of law become an esoteric mental game. It is about real people who had a real conflict. A judge (or several judges) eventually resolved that conflict. See the conflict in your head. Relate the rules applied by the court to situations you’ve experienced, have heard about, or can imagine.

8. Know when the material is over your head. Write down the questions that are blocking your understanding and move on as best you can, or turn to a treatise, your professor, or a friend. Get the answer eventually – don’t just drop it – if common sense tells you it’s important.

9. Before class, you only need to build a “working hypothesis” to polish in class about the cases and about the area of law being examined. Don’t expect to know all the answers before you get there. Understand what happened in each case AND know the core concepts in the area being explored before you go to class and then work on (a) correcting misconceptions, and (b) exploring the outer limits of the relevant concepts in class.

10. Embrace confusion. Confusion is a great tool and a great sign that you’re thinking hard about complex issues. Use a treatise when an area of law feels like it’s over your head or beyond your present ability to understand fully. Talk to your professor and ask your friends about the questions you have. If you can’t “see” a rule well enough to apply new situations to it consistently after class, you need to explore it further.

And #11— What We’re Tempted to Forget: Limit your study time, no matter what. No one can study (read, think, be engaged in class, meet with teachers, work in study groups) effectively more than 55 hours a week, on average, for an entire semester. There are some weeks you won’t have to study that hard; other weeks you may study a tiny bit more. Write a schedule and stick to it. Take advantage of 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there to knock out a case. Spend your non-study time in activities that replenish you and bring joy to your life. If you’re working significantly less than 45 hours a week, consider if that’s enough.

This posting was submitted by Ruth Ann McKinney, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Professor McKinney has served as Director of UNC Law's first-year legal writing program and its academic success program for over twenty years, including three as Assistant Dean for Legal Writing & Academic Success. She is the author of Reading Like a Lawyer (Carolina Academic Press 2004), Core Grammar for Lawyers (an online, self-instructional tool available at, and Legal Research: A Practical Guide and Self-Instructional Workbook (5th ed. with Scott Childs 2009).

Copyright 2011 by Professor Ruth Ann McKinney, the UNC School of Law. Reprinted with the permission of the author.