- Ensure you are ready to write for three hours. In the modern age many people use electronic writing as the norm. It is tiring to write for three hours so ensure that you are able to do this by practicing writing freehand. Make your revision notes by hand. This may help you prepare for the task ahead.
- Prepare clear revision notes, identifying the legal principles that are essential to the topic, with the relevant authority to support those legal principles. Perhaps reduce these notes to key trigger words which you can develop.
- Ensure you can explain principles in clear, grammatically correct English. Language is the tool of our trade. You can always improve your English, whether it is your first language or not, by listening to podcasts, reading books and articles.
- Address the relevant issues in the question, whether that is an essay or problem question. For an essay do not present a pre-prepared answer to a question – ensure that you answer the question that is actually asked! Refer back to the question regularly to show you are addressing the issues. For problem questions address the legal issues which arise on the facts given. Do not write all that you know on a topic, regardless of relevance. No matter how correct your explanation, it will gain no credit and demonstrates an inability to apply the law to the facts given.
- Reach a conclusion on the most likely outcome on the facts of a problem question. Do not conclude it is for the courts to decide, you have to present the arguments which the courts will use to make that decision.
- Do not recite large statutory extracts. This will get no credit and is very time consuming for you. Understand what the statute states and apply it.
- Ensure you refer to authority. Do not say ‘there is a case’. As we have a common law system there is usually a case which proves a point. The examiner wants to know that you know the relevant case. Do not give lengthy details of the facts of cases. You should understand the ratio of the case, perhaps a word or two of the facts and then how that case relates to the facts in the problem question you are asked to resolve.
- Do not invent facts. The examiner has written a question which they believe has enough facts to keep you busy for 45 minutes. Do not say (for example) ‘if the answer had been communication by the post then the postal rule will apply’. You may want to show you understand the rule but if it is not relevant then it gains no credit and you will waste time better spent on relevant issues. It may be reasonable to say ‘it is unclear on the facts if there was a deed, if there were…’ as the examiner may have left this ambiguous to illicit a discussion. But if the examiner has said ‘the sale was made by deed’ then this is conclusive.
- Understand that sometimes the law is ambiguous and that there will be competing decisions, which seem to contradict. There may be dissenting judgments in a case. Academics may differ on their interpretation of a principle. Understand the arguments and be willing to engage in the debate. This is particularly important to do in essays – to understand that academics engage in debate on the meaning of judgments or even statutes. Do not repeat what they say, engage in what they say.
- Ensure you answer four questions. You need to manage your time. The worst mistake is to fail to address all the questions. This automatically reduces your marks by 25%. It is useful to practice writing answers in timed conditions, so you know how to cover material concisely. If you are running over time then you are probably addressing irrelevant issues. If you are still writing at 40 minutes then prepare to end that answer. If necessary, leave a page so you can return to it if time allows – but move onto the next question!
- Do not write in the margins or between lines. If you realise that you have missed an important point place an asterisk where it needs to go (numbered if more than one) and then place this point at the end of the answer. The examiner will read in the correct order and then return to the main answer (rather like a footnote in a book).
- Use headings and sub-headings in your answers. This helps you to keep a logic and presents your work in a more readable form. If a question is divided into subsections ensure you label it as such. Do not expect the examiner to work out when you moved from point a) to point b). Believe me, it is not always clear when this happens.
- Ensure you have enough knowledge (cases, statutes and academic arguments) to address the legal issues. Ensure that you understand this knowledge and are able to argue this in relation to the given question.
This blog post was written by Anne Street, law lecturer at SOAS, University of London.
For more exam tips you might like to read Hints for Exams, which was published on the Laws blog last year.