Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

I'm going to try something, just to see if any of you can spark anything. Here's my question. What would you like to see Anonymous Lawyer do? Doesn't need to be specific. "Go to a Dodgers game" would be a fine and helpful response. Here's why I'm asking. My wall is currently covered in post-it notes, as I plan out how to execute the revisions to the first draft of my manuscript. There are some plot elements I'm adding in, and some things I'm moving around. I have a master outline I'm working off of, but the post-its are helping me get a sense of what happens in what blog entry in the novel. One of the things I started realizing when I read through my draft, front to back, red pen in hand, was that it's often fun when Anonymous Lawyer gets out of the office and has to interact with people who aren't his subordinates. The stuff in the office is fun too, but there's nice opportunities for him to be interesting when he's elsewhere. So, like this Dodgers game suggestion I'm giving myself, I think there might be some way to work that into my plot, and get to write something fun about him getting angry that the players won't sign autographs for his son, even when he throws twenty-dollar bills at them. I'm making that up on the fly. I haven't written anything yet. But I thought I'd throw the question out there and see if I get anything back. It can be in-office things too, not just outside. But if anyone has any thoughts to throw my way, who knows what it can trigger. And it would be dumb for me not to take advantage of input wherever I can get it.

On an unrelated topic, I got the following e-mail the other day:

I'm a 1L. I have an 8-hour Property exam coming up in a couple of weeks. Can you tell me (on your blog, that is) what an 8 hour exam is like? How did you structure your exam - how much time was devoted to preparing your answers and how much time was spent typing?

I figure some law school-related content is probably a nice change of pace at this point, so I appreciate the question. I had a lot of 8-hour exams. Harvard liked them. Everything was 8-hour or 3-hour, pretty much. The 8 hour exams were take-home. You went and picked up the questions at 8:30 in the morning and had to turn your answers in by 4:30 in the afternoon. Often they were word limited -- 3 questions, 4500 total words, or something like that. Sometimes one question. I think most of them were two or three questions. Con Law, Property, Torts, those were all 8-hour exams.

I found the 8-hour exam format to be pretty awful. Especially fall term exams, because you're really not seeing daylight. You trudge out of your apartment half-asleep at 8:30 to pick it up, and when you're handing it in at 4:30 it's practically dark outside. So it completely throws off your sense of the world. I also never found myself able to stop and eat. I wouldn't get hungry, I wouldn't want to go out in the cold, I wouldn't want to risk it taking longer to do something than I felt it was going to. So I'd try and buy some food the day before and have it around, and sort of eat lunch, but the appetite was never there and I'd end up eating two handfuls of triscuit crackers, or something ridiculous like that. Yogurt. Cereal. It may just be me, though. I do know people who stopped and took twenty minutes for lunch. And it wasn't an issue of timing -- I never cut it too close. It was just the fear that I would need those minutes... by lunchtime it wasn't always clear how long the exam was going to take.

I did make sure to set up my desk beforehand. I would take the exams in my dorm (1L) or apartment (2L/3L), because I lived pretty close to campus. One exam, in Communications Law, I found myself really distracted while I was taking it. It was a boring exam to write, very much based on re-reading things in the casebook and looking over class notes, and I couldn't focus and so I went to the library at about noon, found a quiet area in the basement, plugged in my laptop, and spent the next 3 hours distracted by the heating vent and the flickering fluorescent light but ended up doing okay on the exam anyway. But in my room, I'd have all the course materials laid out on the floor, my outline open on my computer, the file all set up so all I needed to do when I came back with the exam questions is sit down and start working.

I skimmed the exam first, looking at how many questions and which ones looked more do-able than the others. I liked to get a question out of the way first that I thought I could do pretty quickly, just so I could assure myself I wasn't going to fail. So I'd hope there was something there that I could dispose of with relative speed, and I'd do that. It makes real sense on a take-home, when time isn't going to be so hurried, to review the class notes and the casebook to make sure there isn't anything you're forgetting. More than a few times, I'd have an answer outlined and then I'd flip through my notes and realize there was a case I was forgetting that was right on point, and made a lot more sense to use than the ones I was planning to include. It's hard to keep everything straight, and sometimes it's actually a really nice feeling -- you've prepared yourself to write a really complicated answer, and then you flip through some materials and realize it's not nearly as hard as you thought. Deep breath, maybe check e-mail as a reward, re-outline, and go for it.

1L year I unplugged my ethernet cable so I couldn't check e-mail or distract myself. By 2L year I'd rationalized that checking e-mail wasn't going to make or break this exam and it wasn't too distracting to have the cable in. Came in handy during one exam, when the registrar sent an e-mail clarifying something about the exam, I think about what materials we could and couldn't consult, but I'm not sure.

I liked to use a lot of the time reading -- re-reading cases, etc. I felt like that was useful, and made the writing go faster. I outlined my answers before I started writing. Everything they're asking has an answer, somewhere. Or at least some clues. They don't ask questions that make no sense, usually. There's something to start with. Some case, some statute, some area of the law. Just write something. It's a battle of focus and stamina. Just write something. Answer all parts of the question. Divide your time -- if there are three questions, equal word count, know that after 3 hours you should definitely, definitely be on question 2. Especially if you've started with one you think will come relatively easily.

I usually had the patience for one print-and-read before turning it in, but only one. When I thought I was done, I'd print, copyedit, check for anything that didn't make sense, and then make those changes, print again, and turn it in. There were exams where I knew I could clarify a point or do a better job with something, but after 7 hours I couldn't do it. I was too wiped out to re-think a whole section. If it was okay, I left it. If I didn't think it would change the grade. It was hard to keep focus.

I found it helpful at some point in the exam to call my mom or my grandma or someone I knew would be home, and just talk out loud for three minutes or so, just to feel like I wasn't stuck in a hole somewhere all day just writing. Even just saying things about the exam out loud. "I'm taking an exam, there are three questions, I've finished two of them, and probably an hour away from being done. The first question was kind of easy, it was something I was expecting..." Whatever, anything, just to feel like there's a larger world out there.

I don't know how much time I spent typing vs. preparing. I type really fast, and can spit out lots of words without thinking too much if I know where it's going. So I'd spend a lot of time reading and thinking, knowing that the writing wasn't going to be my problem. But it was also sometimes nice to type SOMETHING early, again just to reassure myself that I wasn't going to fail and that I would have something to hand in, even if I wanted to go back and fix later.

I also never really worried about word counts until I finished writing the answer I wanted to write, and then I could go back and cut. I didn't want to miss a piece of the answer because I knew I was getting close to the word count. It's easier to just go back and take out unnecessary words. I use a lot of unnecessary words. I also had a habit on exams of reiterating points I thought were important, which is good on a 3-hour in class hand written exam, I think, but less crucial on a typed 8-hour, and finding and cutting those got me down to the word count in a lot of cases.

Most important, don't panic. At least there's a finish line, even if it feels really far away. 8-hour exams are no fun, but they're do-able, the answers are in your materials somewhere, and you have time. Just keep focus and hand in something. I tended to do considerably better on 3-hour exams than 8-hour exams, I think because while I write fast and have pretty good recall for surface level ideas and facts and concepts, the reality is that other people understood the law better than I did, in a lot of cases, and when put in a situation where there wasn't as much time pressure, and we were being tested on a deeper understanding instead of something shallower, I didn't have a competitive advantage. I like timed multiple choice exams where speed is an advantage. I do well on those exams. I don't as much like exams where you really need to know what you're talking about. :)

Okay, that's all I've got on 8-hour exams. Hope it's helpful.