Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



This Essay explores the values, limits, and adverse effects of our system of law school examinations. Law school examinations encourage or require students to acquire certain knowledge while measuring a kind of knowledge as well. Importantly, this process occurs within a context of political relationships between law schools, law firms, the legal profession, and the state, as well as between law school administrators, faculty, and students. This system of "power/knowledge"relationships constitutes the law school's basic mechanism of self-regulation or, more generally, a mechanism of social control over legal education. In this era of substantial uncertainty about purposes and methods in legal education, an inquiry into law school examinations and their political contexts is both timely and potentially fruitful. Prior studies have developed important criticisms of law school examinations, but these studies have been partial or limited critiques.

These studies have uncritically accepted conventional beliefs about law school practices and have overlooked certain values and disadvantages of the current examination system. This Essay provides a "systemic analysis" and a "total critique" by assessing the structure, contextual relationships, values, and adverse effects of law school examinations.

This Essay seeks to improve our understanding of law school exams in three basic ways. First, Part II presents a new interpretation of what the modern law school examination requires and measures of student performance. This interpretation emphasizes the reading and grading methods that are used by most contemporary law professors, the implications of these methods for the thought and writing style of examination writers, and the personal attributes that are required for examination success. Second,

Parts III, IV, and V consider the law school examination in context in order to assess the values, limits, and disadvantages of the examination system. This analysis focuses initially on relationships of law school exams with student admissions and faculty recruitment policies, with state licensure exams, and with law firm hiring practices. The analysis also considers the apparent disjunctions between classroom and examination work, the reasons for these disjunctions, and how these disjunctions serve the examination system and social interests. This analysis also discusses the several ways that examination practices influence the lives and work of students and faculty. Third, Part VI describes changes to our examination practices that could improve the quality of legal education without jeopardizing the main values of the present system.