Parsing through minutiae (for the law student and the law firm associate)

LegalJob was asked by a law student  “how can you tell what is important or what is going to be on the final exam.  It seems like there is so much minutia so it is hard to tell."

Generally, the law school is testing you on your ability to parse through all of the minutiae and determine what is important -- in other words "how to think like a lawyer."  To succeed in law school, one generally has to weed through the morass (provided by the fact pattern), appreciate the nuances, and identify significant issues (so-called "issue spotting").  Once armed with the significant issues, the student has to be able to articulate both sides of the argument.

Similarly, a lawyer's success can often depend (at least in part) on the ability to identify the significant issues and provide solutions -- both of which require a deep understanding of facts, including the minutiae, and judgments about what is most relevant (i.e. where to focus one's time).

To help get into the weeds and think like a lawyer (at the law school level), LegalJob recommends the following (which could also be helpful at the law firm associate level):

Learn as much as you can about the laws involved

  • Understand the reason (stated policy or possible policy) behind statutes (legislative history can be helpful in some cases) and judicial decisions (dissents can be helpful as can reading how the law was applied in other cases).
  • The policy may make no sense to you but it may support various interpretations of the law.

Be able to articulate both sides in a case

  • Do not worry about being right or being on the right side of the issue.  There is rarely one right answer on law school essay exams (or in real life client situations).
  • Consider what facts could help further each side's cause.

Do not worry about finding a precise black and white answer.

  • Many times the exception(s) can swallow the general rule (so keep reading).
  • Be flexible in your thinking of where your fact pattern fits (perhaps there is an argument that you meet the exception assuming it's helpful).
  • Be creative in your arguments
    • Identify and take advantage of ambiguities.
    • Your success on the law school exam (and later as a lawyer) will likely depend on how you can use ambiguities to help make your case.

Image courtesy of Dan at