By Craig Forcese

Full Professor
Faculty of Law

Email: cforcese[at]

Twitter: @cforcese


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Marrow and Moonshine: The Use and Misuse of Law School Summaries

As the leaves fall, and the days shorten, the law school begins to hum with end of term, pre-exam activity.  During this period, first year students facing the prospects of law school exams for the first time turn to that authoritative source of systemic, unbiased and carefully researched data: the upper year student.  The latter, having run the exam gauntlet, delight in sharing their war stories.  They also share their definitive course summaries.  "Psst, want a summary buddy. Works like a charm.  Guaranteed A."

There is some legal Latin that student need to know in first year, and if they didn't learn it then, need it now. (Actually, there isn't really any useful legal Latin, but we like to speak dead languages every once in a while to justify the monopoly on legal knowledge.) In that tradition, here's the most important Latin for any student considering a canned summary: caveat emptor. Technically, this translates roughly into "buyer beware".  In the world of summary sharing, I translate it as "what the heck did you expect would happen?"

I know, law profs always want you to do the work and not take shortcuts. Very high-minded of us really.  So here's why.

1. Garbage in, Garbage Out

Every year -- and I mean every year -- there are answers on exams that contain bizarrely incorrect answers that are improbably consistent.  Actually, back up.  There are answers that are improbably consistent. Improbably consistent answers are evidence of collaboration or plagiarism.  Off to a bad start in academic fraud world if the explanation for the improbably consistent answer is "I was copying from someone else's summary".

But return to the answers that are both improbably consistent and also bizarrely incorrect.  Usually these are answers that rely on cases and principles I haven't taught for years.  And I haven't taught them for years because they have been overturned.  That is, they are no longer correct.  In other instances, the improbably consistent answers are simply misconstruals of the law.

This is exactly the disease that flows from the sharing of canned summaries, passed down from student to student over the generations.  It's like there is some fundamental flaw in the DNA of that summary that expresses in the form of uncanny errors on the exam.  Maybe the DNA was irradiated.  I think a lot of canned summaries were written in Chernobyl.

Needless to say the students with the bizarrely incorrect answers that are improbably consistent received predictably consistent lousy grades.

It's a little bit like that credit card commercial: "What's in your wallet"? Well, "what's in your summary?". It could be lethal and contagious.

2. The Medium is Not the Message

Even good summaries are not security blankets.  They are just more readings.  Students read them.  They may even memorize them.  Presumably that creates comfort.  I doubt it produces better marks.  Or more correctly, I doubt it produces better marks than would the case if they were used properly.

And there is only one proper summary: the one you do yourself.  That's more work.  Exactly.  The only -- and I really mean only -- virtue of a summary is to force you to sit down and consolidate the course.  Organize the material in your mind, digest it, spot what you don't really understand, correct those gaps.  Once you do your own summary, that's your studying.  You understand in ways that passive consumption of a canned summary will never allow.

Let me put this caps, bold and italics: THE SUMMARY IS A PROCESS, NOT A PRODUCT.

If you skip the process part and look for the Holy Grail of all canned summaries, you presumably are also the sort of person who envisages time in the Lac-Leamay Casino as your chief income generation strategy.  Keep those dice rolling.

3. Team B Testing

That's not to say that every student's home-baked summary is good.  Many are probably pretty rudimentary or just plain wrong. And so there is a role for canned summaries (and group work where students subdivide prep of a summary):  once you have gone from A to Z in preparing your own summary, it is useful to juxtapose that work product against that of others.  This is Team B testing of your Team A.  If there are inconsistencies, you need to turn your mind to this question:  which is correct?  Research it.  Fix it.  Go into an exam with eyes wide open. But remember: the Team B is just a backstop.  Canned or group-produced summaries never replace first doing your own.

4. The Summary stays in the Bag

I have seen summaries that must be longer than the full transcripts of all the lectures I give in the class.  Student bring them into exam rooms on wheels.  They put them on the desk (with a thud).  And in the exam, they leaf madly through the thing looking for I don't know what. 


I always, always design exams for the student who knows their stuff, not for the one who decides to learn it during the exam.  The latter won't have time to finish because they spend writing time flipping through their telephone book. That's not a security blanket.  That's cement encased feet.

I suppose there may be summaries with comprehensive indexes and navigation tools, but I doubt that is common.  And without any shade of doubt, the time spent on doing that sort of editing could be better deployed on, oh, learning law, playing Xbox, staring blankly at the wall.  Whatever.

Yes, every once and while, even a student following the advice on self-prep of summaries above may be stumped and need a quick look in the summary.  But the student who did their own summary will usually find that they have assimilated knowledge, and don't need to treat the exam as a time-constrained research exercise.  The summaries stay mostly closed.

5. The Summary is Rice Pasta

I have started eating rice pasta.  I can never get the quantities right.  When it boils it always seems to reduce.  Weird.  

A summary should be rice pasta.  It needs to be boiled down.  What should be on the desk next to the exam writer is the two page Rosetta stone.  This Rosetta stone translates exams into grades.  What is it?  Once you figure out most subjects, you'll find that they can be reduced to a decision tree.  There are legal tests that produces outcomes that trigger other tests.  The secret is to plug the fact on the exam into the proper spot in the decision tree.  And if you've taken the time to boil the summary down to that decision tree, you can just follow and note on your exam each step that then arises on your decision tree.  And at the end, your paper computer almost automatically spits out a reasoned outcome trolling all sorts of marks with it.

More than all this: the student who has this decision tree has thought about his or her subject from the optic of problem-solving matrix, and not as the useless alternative of "memorized knowledge". And that means (I earnestly believe) he or she is much more likely actually to spot issues on an hypo exams.

All of this is to say that the decision tree is the most effective way known to humanity of converting student knowledge into grades on a hypo exam.  

Moreover, if you write the summary and then take the supplemental step of producing the decision tree,  you know the material so well that you may actually be authorized to give advice to the first years who come after you.  Oh, and how about that eventual job practicing law? All that time and info in law school may stick a little better. You have got to the marrow.

So there you go.  In November, students need to decide whether their exam strategy will be "strive to do well because I know the genetic code of my stuff and can convey it" or instead simply hope that the moonshine they get from other students among the lockers doesn't give them a whopper of a hangover.

Ask the best students -- the ones with consistently good grades -- what decision they made.  I do all the time.  It's inevitably variations on choice 1.  Maybe they lie to me to make me happy.  But I doubt it.