A GUIDE TO PREPARATION FOR LAW SUBJECT ASSIGNMENTS AND EXAMS
of these notes is to improve the abilities and techniques necessary to succeed in the study of all law subjects. While these subjects differ in content and cover different areas of law, the basic
skills and techniques which are examined remain largely the same. It is therefore suggested that these notes be retained for reference throughout the duration of a student’s law courses, and hopefully
they will be useful for all law subjects undertaken.
The skills and techniques required in law subjects are quite unlike those taught in law subjects at secondary schools and other non-law subjects. Earlier studies in legal subjects may be useful
background but students will quickly discern a different approach taken in the specific law subjects.
Successful completion of law subjects requires:
- satisfactory performance in an exam and assignment or mini exam.
These do not test your ability merely to cram vast amounts of knowledge to be recalled from memory. Rather, the emphasis is on the presentation of problems which require students to:-
- identify the relevant legal issues
- apply the legal principles from cases or statute
- develop legal arguments from these principles
- arrive at a considered conclusion.
This emphasis can be seen from the fact that most law subject exams are “open-book”. Students may bring their notes and texts into such examinations. Exam papers are assessed on the
application of the law in the context of a problem rather than merely stating legal principles.
It should be clear at this stage that successful examination performance requires preparation and practice in a thoughtful way rather than just “swotting”.
By the very nature of law, it is not always possible to arrive at a precise, simple answer to a problem. In fact, examination questions often cover issues and provide situations that may be
in some doubt. An examination answer will be assessed on:
- awareness of issues,
- application of legal principles
- formulation of legal arguments
rather than necessarily the arrival at a particular, correct conclusion.
It may be possible for two different answers, containing contrary conclusions, to both receive good marks. This may occur if both answers show an understanding of
the law and a coherent application to the facts, revealing cogent legal arguments.
From the above general observations, it follows that the study of law
subjects cannot be successfully completed by a last-minute attempt to cover the whole course.
It is critical that, students should attend all lectures and tutorials. Lectures explain and supplement the text book and are designed to help students comprehend the legal principles.
Attendance at lectures should therefore facilitate effective use of time and ensure that:
- important areas covered in the exam are given proper emphasis
- students are directed to efficient study of the more important topics, rather than attempt to cover the entire detail ( some topics may be given a lower
- reading texts will be more efficient rather than wading through them without guidance (Lectures may also be seen as a guide to study from the text book).
Attendance at tutorials is perhaps even more important, because it is at tutorials that legal principles are applied to problems. As previously mentioned, this
is the skill which exams and assignments seek to assess.
To obtain the maximum benefits of attendance at tutorials, students should prepare themselves beforehand:
- reading and attempting to understand the legal principles relevant to the topic
- reading lecture notes and the applicable parts of the text book
- reading any relevant statutes or cases
- attempting written answers to scheduled questions.
Students should make a note of any unresolved difficulties they have had in understanding these materials and not hesitate to ask questions in tutorials or of tutors outside class time to resolve
The legal principles should then be applied to the tutorial questions in a written answer. This will enable the student to:
- determine whether the legal principles are properly understood
- to gain experience in applying them to a problem.
Armed with these answers to problems the student will gain the maximum benefit from the tutorials.
Tutorial participation by students and lecturer’s comments will usually uncover further points so that a full understanding of the issues raised by a problem will be achieved far more easily
than if the student does not attend or goes into the tutorial completely unprepared.
It is by going through the tutorial problems in detail and preparing written answers to them that the skills necessary to complete the exam and other assessment
properly will be developed in the most efficient way.
Practising this technique is the most important part of studying law subjects
Towards the end of a course, students should have accumulated lecture notes, tutorial problem answers and text book summaries.
It is usually a useful exercise to consolidate these notes perhaps in point form during the final weeks before the exam and they can be organised as follows:
- according to topics
- highlighted with headings and sub-headings for easy reference
- as a table of contents to quickly find particular topic areas
- as an index to books and supplementary documents for quick reference.
The compilation of such note summaries gives an overview of the subject and requires an understanding of the important legal issues likely to appear on the exam.
The note summaries bring together materials from various sources into one convenient place for study and use in the exam (if it is “open book”). This should enable the student to more easily
identify relevant legal issues in exam questions as well as the legal principles to be applied. The topics should be set out in a logical sequence so as to enable exam answers to follow a similar
Previous exam papers are a good indication of which topics are emphasised or favoured by the lecturer. While it is dangerous to assume too much, such indications are very useful in preparation
for the exam.
Written answers to past exam questions may also lead to the understanding of difficulties and also may provide an opportunity to question the lecturer or tutor on any points of confusion which
have become apparent.
Study for exams should involve both revision of legal principles and answers
to tutorial problems which emphasise their application.
Read the directions first and next the questions carefully, ascertaining exactly what is required. Assume that all facts
given in the question have some relevance to your answer so that issues are less likely to be left out.
It may be helpful to prepare a rough outline in point form which is organised in a logical sequence. This will usually involve the following steps.
- What are the legal issues relevant to the problem?
- Outline the relevant legal principles, citing applicable cases and/or statutory provisions
- Apply these principles as legal arguments. If possible contrary legal arguments should be set out and evaluated
- State a conclusion which answers the question asked and ties together the legal arguments.
In an “open book” exam:
- refer to your notes summary and all indexes to materials in order to help establish such frameworks for these facts
- organise the legal principles in a logical sequence
- use tutorial problems in helping to ascertain issues
- apply the principles to the facts of the exam question
- formulate coherent legal arguments.
Allocate your time according to the marks for each question. Most students who fail, do not complete the paper
or are left with very little time to properly attempt some questions. It is better to:-
- complete an answer in point form
- even leave questions partly uncompleted where the main points are covered
- move on to the next questions rather than to spend time completing a question beyond the allocated time.
A hurried answer that touches on the relevant issues is far better than no answer at all.
Discuss each issue one at a time before moving on to the next. This approach most easily enables the legal principles to be logically applied to the problem.
Do not put down ideas in the order you think of them and jump from point to point at random.
Concentrate on a logical analysis of the problem before coming to a conclusion. Do not reach a conclusion in the beginning and then try to justify it in your arguments.
Do not copy off slabs from textbook case head note or statute! The examiner is looking for an understanding and application of legal principles rather than
an ability to copy. It is far better to spend time on applying the principles rather than merely copying out provisions that reveal no understanding. Similarly, it is
usually a waste of time to cite cases and then proceed to state the facts for no apparent purpose. A statement of facts can be useful where some point is being made in a legal argument.
For example, to show that the case may differ in an important respect to the exam problem, a brief discussion of the facts may be incorporated into an argument.
Remember that in an open book exam, the examiner knows that you have access to books and notes. Marks are largely given for how
these are applied.
In subjects such as Company Law, Industrial Law and Taxation, which are based largely on statute, it is important to reveal an understanding of specific provisions
and how they apply to a problem.
This often requires:
- a close examination of a relevant section by pulling apart the various elements
- incorporation of cases into the answer which interpret the section.
- application of particular provisions to the problem.
An examiner may have in mind a number of points arising from a particular section and the more of these that are raised, usually the better the mark. Again, the
emphasis should be on revealing an understanding of the operation of legal principle rather than copying large slabs of statute or text.
Rather than provide a ‘correct model or indeed excerpts from highly graded exam responses which might encourage
students into a misleading example of analysis, it has been decided to concentrate on the following vital points in the construction of written responses to law problems:
- make certain you analyse the question (what it essentially asks)
- make certain you respond to all of the question
- start the response by clearly saying what the issue is
- frame your response from the perspective of the law and then weave the relevant parts of the scenario in (otherwise you may lose yourself in the detail
of the ‘story’)
- make certain that whenever possible, a relevant authority supports the law issue
- use the authority with perspective, providing a particular ‘angle’ to the leading point
- move from point to point with precision, linking each to the next, setting out the issue, the authority and relevant detail, finishing with a law argument
- try and ensure that your ending is crisp, to the point, presenting one plausible perspective
on the issues entailed in the scenario (not necessarily a ‘true’ or ‘correct’ answer but one that shows substantial analysis)
- make certain that you avoid borrowing language style from textbooks, use your own simple, clear descriptions, keeping your points as precise as possible
- last, be economical in your use of authority and general quotes – use only what specifically applies and that which adds to your argument