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Open Book vs. Closed Book: Succeeding on Law School Exams

Vikas Bajaj

Open Book vs. Closed Book: Succeeding on Law School Exams

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One of the most frequently debated issues concerning law school exams is a professor’s decision to make the exam open book or closed book. Students seem to be partial to open book exams, perhaps because they seem less frightening and overwhelming. In this article, we take a look at the differences between – and benefits of – open and closed book law school exams.

Closed Book: Don’t Lawyers Research Everything?

One of the most popular arguments against closed book exams is that lawyers – the very profession law students are studying to become – very rarely answer questions without doing a little research. People listen when lawyers speak, and often rely on their answers, so it is important to be completely confident in answers that are given to legal questions. Why should law school exams be any different? If lawyers in practice don’t answer without the aid of legal resources, why should law students be treated any differently?

There are a few schools of thought on why closed book exams are not only helpful, but necessary in the proper development of an attorney.

First, closed book exams are, more often than not, mostly seen in 1L courses. First-year students are still testing the waters and learning how to think like a lawyer. Some think that it is better to test certain principles and concepts rather than the ability to go out and find the answer. 1L courses generally cover foundational topics that serve as the basis for a lawyer’s skill and legal knowledge. Closed book exams require students to really understand and analyze these concepts without the use of outside assistance.

Second, some courses teach information that, by its very nature, needs to be memorized to a certain extent. For example, attorneys should have more than a basic grasp of the rules of civil procedure and evidence if they regularly practice before a court. Closed book exams in these and other similar courses encourage students to start understanding how to remember these aspects of legal practice. These exams are generally designed to elicit whether a student can identify and solve basic issues that practicing attorneys regularly deal with. Instead of looking up the answers, students should be able to recognize issues and apply commonly-used rules.

Third, the bar exam is closed book, so why not get some practice during law school? The bar exam is a huge undertaking and some professors like the idea of giving students the opportunity to work on their memorization skills. Practice makes perfect, and law school exams can provide the perfect opportunity to do so.

Finally, when students take closed book exams they are all on the same playing field. They each have access to the same thing – the knowledge they brought with them. Professors understand there are limitations to what a student can memorize and, as a result, the expectations for the depth of answers will be reasonable.

Open Book: Harder Than They Seem?

While open book exams may seem like a better deal – you get to look up anything you don’t know! – they are often harder than their closed book counterparts. When professors permit law students to use course books, commercial outlines, and notes they often set higher expectations for the resulting answers. With increased access to information comes an increased expectation for a reasoned and detailed response.

Some students may underestimate the difficulty of open book exams and fail to commit the necessary time and effort to preparing for the test. Instead of preparing for the exam, some students rely on the sources they bring with them and spend precious time reading to find answers in textbooks and outlines. Students taking open book exams should go in just as prepared as they would for closed book exams. Resource materials should be used to flesh out ideas – not to find the answers.

Preparing for Exams

The effort a law student puts into studying should be identical regardless of whether the exam is open book or closed book.  Closed book exams require more memorization, but open book exams may demand more information from the student. Time is of the essence, so the more prepared a student is the better they will do. Here are some tips for preparing for a law school exam, regardless of its format.

  • Granted, the way an outline is constructed will depend on the format of the exam. Open book exam outlines should be detailed and formatted in such a way that information is easily accessible. Students shouldn’t waste valuable time hunting for information in their outlines – use different colors, font sizes, and font emphasizers to highlight pertinent information.  Closed book exam outlines need not be as involved, as the tool will only be helpful leading up to, and not during, the exam. Include the major points covered in the course and information that will be most helpful in analyzing legal issues.
  • Use flashcards. Flashcards are great for memorizing legal issues and concepts. Whether the exam is open book or closed book, the more a student knows when they walk through the doors the better they’ll do. Students with open book exams can use outlines to add details to answers they know off the top of their head after serious flashcard sessions. Students with closed book exams can gain confidence in understanding the issues in their outlines after going through the cards a few times.
  • Study in groups. Sometimes it takes a different perspective or explanation for a concept to click. Working in groups can allow students to learn how classmates understand the material. Learning the law is like learning a new language – these varying perspectives and techniques can make a difference when trying to become fluent.