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A moment of insight this afternoon, in the aftermath of the exam I wrote today.

It was one of those situations where I downloaded the previous years’ exams a couple of days ago, after a day or two of reviewing and prep. I’d thought I was in a good position, and ready to have a look: I had a good grasp of the concepts, some notion of the specifics, and my sense of the cases and what they stood for was gelling nicely in my brain. Then, I read the first question on one of the old exams–and experienced a surge of blind panic. Almost literally. My vision hazed slightly, and after the mindblank that accompanied my panic, the thought surfaced : I have absolutely no idea how to answer this. The next, intricate, two-page question was no better. Nor the next.

See, in many ways, law school exams are… different. They’re not like any of the exams I’d written before starting law school.

Previous exams fell into three categories: memorized facts (fill in the blanks); ruminations about ideas X or Y as they relate to topic Z (essay questions); and demonstrations of skills (math tests). Law school exams are closest to the last of these–the math, logic, or problem based test.

But, they’re also different, because aside from the previous years’ “fact pattern” (as they’re often called) exam problems, you don’t actually practice the skill you need to write them, at any point in the semester. In the semester, you’re just learning the foundational information that will form the substance of the responses. Sometime before the exam, you still have to figure out how to take those little bits of often-discrete, but sometimes connected, pieces of information and apply them to the messy description of facts, disasters, and problems that is the exam. Some of the elements in this tangle of untidy mishaps will echo the cases you have read. You must be able to recognize the echoes. But, they’ll never be exactly the same. They’ll be different enough that you have to pull in other cases, and other approaches, in order to reach your conclusions. Often, you’ll need to consider underlying theories behind why cases were decided a certain way, rather than simply citing the outcomes. They can be tricky, those law school exams.

I had somehow forgotten the practical reality of this. Blame the fact that last year I took few “black letter” courses–the kinds of courses that test students in this way, rather than requiring a research paper of the type that’s fairly standard in universityland. So, I had forgotten the cognitive steps you have to take, from cases, theory, statute, and lectures, to the application of all that, in the law school exam questions.

It had somehow slipped my mind–until that moment of reading the previous years’ exams, and being overwhelmed by panic.

Suddenly, I snapped into focus, my mind already planning out the steps I’d need to follow, in order to get a grasp on the material in a way that would be of some use for the exam, which was a mere two days away (almost exactly 48 hours from the moment of realization). The next days blurred into each other in a montage of reading, underlining, and connecting. Where in previous weeks, I would be lucky to have 30 minutes go by without a Facebook break, suddenly, the cats would be agitating, and I’d realise that hours had passed and I needed to feed them. That would be my break, with a quick snack for myself, and then I’d be back at it.

The sense of focus is extraordinary, and offset only by the sense of frantic worry that I’m not going to get through it all in time…

But I did, mostly. By the time of the exam, I had the pertinent bits of the main core of cases we covered, the theory, many of the relevant subsections of the statutes, and a detailed reading of one case I thought the prof would focus on for one of the four questions (he did), mapped out on an index sheet, such that I could find the information, amid the course materials and summaries, as I needed it. I also had the early beginnings of a sense of interconnectedness between the different units in the course, and how they fit together into larger scenarios. When I looked at the fact patterns this morning, I actually had a few things to say about them–enough to sustain me through the limited time allocations in an exam situation. I knew, more or less, where to find the information I needed, in the summaries, maps, and books. I could have practiced more, to get a bit faster at tracking the information, but at least it was mostly there.

It was a fair exam. I expect that I passed (fingers crossed!), as I had a few things to say about all the questions, and I think they were mostly on point. I hope I did decently–at least on par with the majority of my classmates, because the bell curve is my friend, at law school.

But as I was thinking about it on the way home, I suddenly had a very connected, schematic sense of the process–a sense that the paper index I’d created, and the maps I’d made of the cases and statutes, were simply printed manifestations of the mapping I was doing in my brain as I studied. And I could feel that map, just sitting there, in my mind: the information, all set out, with the connections made.

Without the map, showing the interconnections and allowing you to trace out a variety of possible routes, it would all be a maze, rather like a city can be, when you don’t have a sense of the overall pattern of roads and dead ends. You fumble your way through, getting lost and disoriented.

My initial sense of the information for the course was like that–a vague, maze-like tangle of ideas, cases, and statutes, rather like the messy fact patterns on the exams. But as I studied, I found the connections, discovered the patterns, and became able to trace out the different possible routes for sections of the mess.

Mind you, there are still parts of the material that remain a barely-navigable maze of blind alleys, frustration, and a very vague impression of general direction. But, there’s something deeply exciting and gratifying about the intense focus, and the process of pulling the bits and pieces into my brain, as I try to grasp and understand each case or concept (at least a little)–and then stepping back and tracing the connections, creating the routes, and painstakingly transforming the maze into the map.

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