Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why Harvard Law School Exams Matter

Harvard Law School

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to attend Harvard Law School (“HLS”)? Part of that experience is sitting for exams, and HLS has unveiled an online treasure trove – every exam administered from 1871-1998.
What did Professors Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Felix Frankurter expect of their students? What was President Obama asked during his first year Civil Procedure exam?  Justice Kagan?  Justice Scalia? And when the next HLS graduate is nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, isn’t it likely that all “vetters” both inside and without the Department of Justice will go back and see precisely what the nominee was asked in Constitutional Law during the late 1980s?  What should we surmise if the nominee will not answer those same questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee for public scrutiny?
Harvard Law School is a source of public fascination – from A Few Good Men to Love Story to Legally Blonde to The Paper Chase to Scott Turow’s One L, the trials and tribulations of HLS students is the stuff of lore. The public wants to think of HLS as a difficult rite of passage – and it is. Exams play a critical part of those years.
Law school exams are incredibly important. Putting aside the obvious judgmental purpose they serve, they force students to coalesce a huge amount of information, to distill theories and form their own opinions on critical legal issues. And they make one sweat.
My most memorable law school exam experience came thanks to the extraordinary Yale Law Professor Roberto Romano, who taught Regulation of Financial Instruments during the Spring of my second (2L) year. I opened the exam and found a fact pattern that I knew I could not possibly digest in the allotted time. I can only compare it to drinking from a fire hydrant for four hours. I’m sure others fared better. It didn’t matter – I had learned the material, and humbling or not, the exam had thereby served its purpose.
HLS is an institution, and other law schools should follow its lead on this one.
A word of advice to current law students everywhere. Previous exams can be a valuable study tool. Just don’t overdo it lest you suffer the fate of Mr. Hart, the stomach-churning protagonist in The Paper Chase when Contracts Professor Kingsfield engages him in a discussion of Hawkins v. McGee, the famous hairy hand case.
Enjoy the ride. You only get to do it once.