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By Amanda Hamilton, Patron, National Association of Licensed Paralegals

Anyone intending to pursue a career in law, be it as a paralegal, barrister or solicitor, needs to pass exams. However, exam taking is a favourite pastime of few people. Even if you know the answer to the question, formulating it in the correct way to ensure the best exam or assignment results can be a challenge.

But don’t worry, there is a knack to it that you can learn.

Legal questions can be asked in two ways on exam papers;

  • They can be directly asked: ‘Explain the Civil Court Appeal process in England and Wales?’ This is a factual question and should only have one answer.
  • or they are based on a scenario from which a series of questions and sub-questions flow. These are a little trickier to get to grips with.

Here’s how to tackle questions in an exam.

Reading the question

It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is to read the question very carefully as there may be several elements to it, and quite often you will read the first part and completely ignore any other element to the question that comes later.  This is disastrous as it may mean losing a number of marks before you have even begun.

An example may be:

 ‘Mrs Jones consults you about making a Will but cannot understand why there is so much fuss over this. Why can’t she just write her intentions on a piece of paper as she wishes to do? Explain to her what the requirements are to make a Will valid and the various gifts that could be included in her Will and how they may fail.’ 20 marks

A learner may just latch onto the first two parts of the question about the requirements that make a Will legally valid and what the various gifts are but may disregard the last part about how the gifts may fail. Five marks may be lost immediately for not attempting to answer the last part of the question.

The Importance of the Qualification Specification: Learning Outcomes and Assessment Criteria

Whether it is an exam or an open book assignment, the Qualification Specification will have the Learning Outcomes detailed. These are all that the learner should learn from completing the course. In addition, and very importantly, there will be assessment criteria within this document, and this is what the exam/assignment questions are usually based on. This is an extremely helpful document for reference for any learner. Do not ignore it, it can help you understand the type of questions you are likely to be asked and the sort of answers that will be required. Too many students fail to read this document – don’t be one of them.

Formulating the answer to a question

The rule of thumb is not to presume that the reader/examiner knows anything. Once you have identified what the question is about and have read the appropriate part in the workbook or textbook (or from memory if an examination), you then need to outline the relevant area of law or legal principle in your own words before applying it to the scenario and concluding.

Being afraid to commit to a particular answer

When answering a legal question, you are quite often asked to state what you believe would happen in this scenario. This is difficult as you may think to yourself: ‘what if I get it wrong?’

In a court of law, especially in civil actions, there is usually no single correct answer at the start of proceedings. That is why it has reached court and has not been settled beforehand. The party that wins the case will be the party that has the best argument.  This will include presenting the facts, mentioning case law precedent to back up your side’s argument or arguing about interpreting the wording in a Statute. It could also be about the validity of evidence and the credibility of witnesses. The Judge will have the final say based on the balance of probabilities i.e. which party he believes has the weightier evidence and argument. Therefore, any conclusion included in your answer will be valid provided you have presented the argument for it.

In a criminal court, it is slightly different as an accused person is either guilty of having committed an offence or not and the burden of proof is much higher i.e. beyond reasonable doubt. So, if there is a question relating to Criminal Law, the same applies although facts and evidence have a vital part to play. You should state the law as it stands and then discuss any relevant cases before concluding.

Open Book Assignments

Examination situations are difficult. The stress of entering an examinations hall and sitting down to complete an exam with a number of other people, without the ability to have documents to refer to can be quite overwhelming.

Arguably being successful in such circumstances depends mostly on the learners’ ability to memorise facts, cases and statutes and there could be an adverse effect on someone who finds this particular skill more challenging.

The reality is, that in practice, when a client comes to you for advice, you would not be able to say categorically what the law is chapter and verse, as this would only be relevant once it gets to court. What you would be able to do is to suggest that from the facts given you believe there is a case and once taken on, you would research the law.

On the other hand, open book assignments have their own challenges. The assumption is that since the learner has the workbook or other texts by their side for reference while completing the assignment, it makes it far easier to pass. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many learners fall foul by copying word for word from the text thereby committing plagiarism (the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as your own without citing the source). Alternatively, having recognised the area of law, learners write all about the topic with gusto without actually answering the question.

Take away tips

There are several important points to remember when drafting an answer to a legal assignment/exam question:

  1. Read and understand the question very carefully: what are you being asked to write about?
  2. Remember to answer all parts of the question.
  3. Familiarise yourself with the qualification specification learning outcomes and assessment criteria. Awarding Organisations like NALP have indicative content added which can also be very helpful as it gives guidelines regarding what should be included in an answer.
  4. Once you know this, then you can locate the information you need in your workbook or textbook and read this thoroughly over and over again until you understand it and can write about it in an open book assignment or you can remember it if you are in an exam situation.
  5. Draft your answer based on the fact that the examiner knows nothing. This means laying out what the law is, mentioning statutes and relevant precedent cases.
  6. Finally, don’t forget to answer the specific question and relate it to the scenario (if any).

By following these tips and maintaining a disciplined approach to your studies, you can increase your confidence and performance in legal exams. Good luck!


Amanda Hamilton is the Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body and the only paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional.

Web: http://www.nationalparalegals.co.uk

Twitter: @NALP_UK

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NationalAssocationsofLicensedParalegals/

LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/company/national-association-of-licensed-paralegals/

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