Introduction to Common Law Legal Reasoning as Taught in American Law Schools

29 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2015

See all articles by Jane K. Winn

Jane K. Winn

University of Washington - School of Law

Date Written: September 3, 2015


This essay provides a concise introduction to what is being tested with American law school “issue spotter” exams in order to help first year law students better prepare for exams. Most first year JD courses at American law schools teach legal reasoning with “Socratic method” class discussions of cases in casebooks, and then test students by asking them to apply the law taught in class to hypothetical fact patterns presented in “issue spotter” exams. Most first year JD students perceive a gap between how legal reasoning is presented in casebooks and class discussion on the one hand, and what instructors are looking for when they grade students’ exam answers on the other. This essay is designed to help students bridge that gap. It begins with a concise overview of some of the major elements of common law legal reasoning as well as a brief introduction to some elementary contract law doctrines. After explaining why and how to brief cases, the case briefing method is illustrated by application to a simple case. A basic method for outlining law school courses is provided, and illustrated using the same legal doctrines as were covered in the case brief. The basic structure of issue spotter exam questions is explained and then illustrated by applying the legal doctrines covered in the case brief and outline to a short hypothetical fact pattern. The essay concludes by comparing how rules and facts are expressed in primary legal materials, case briefs, outlines and exam answers, highlighting similarities and differences across these forms of legal writing.

Keywords: legal education, law students, study skills, case briefing, outlining, exam taking, law school exams, legal reasoning, analogies, contract law, IRAC

Suggested Citation

Winn, Jane, Introduction to Common Law Legal Reasoning as Taught in American Law Schools (September 3, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Jane Winn (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States


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