An Informal History of How Law Schools Evaluate Students, with a Predictable Emphasis on Law School Exams

120 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2012

Date Written: 1997


This story of the evolution of legal evaluations from the seventeenth century to the close of the twentieth depicts English influences on American law student evaluations, which have waned in the twentieth century with the advent of course-end examinations. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English examinations given to conclude a legal degree were relatively ceremonial exercises in which performance was often based on the demonstration of rote memory. As examination processes evolved, American law schools adopted essay evaluations from their English counterparts. Examinees in the nineteenth century were given a narrative, requiring the recognition of particularly appropriate legal doctrines, enunciation of the component requirements of the doctrines, and the prioritized application of those components to the facts. One function of this type of examination procedure was to emphasize applications of the law to particular situations rather than to reward memorization. In response to new educational theory in the twentieth century, greater concern about the validity of measurement in law school examinations led to the development of short-answer, true-false, and multiple choice questions. Moot courts, once a popular source of legal instruction in England and America, changed considerably in the twentieth century with the development of interschool competitions and with graded moot court programs. Grades, allowing for the ranking of students, became an essential function of the modem law school examination. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, law schools have markedly reduced the rigor of their grades and diminished the level of academic attrition. The current method of using course-end exams as the sole method of grading has profound disadvantages and has been met with many calls for reform.

Keywords: legal education, education, examination, evaluation, bar exam, Blackstone, Harvard School of Law, New York bar exam, Columbia School of Law, hypothetical, University of Michigan School of Law, pass-fail, multiple-choice, true-false, moot court, legal writing, seminar paper, student-edited law review

JEL Classification: K1, N3, N30, N31

Suggested Citation

Sheppard, Stephen M., An Informal History of How Law Schools Evaluate Students, with a Predictable Emphasis on Law School Exams (1997). University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review, Vol. 26, p. 657, 1997, Available at SSRN:

Stephen M. Sheppard (Contact Author)

St. Mary's University School of Law ( email )

One Camino Santa Maria
San Antonio, TX 78228-8602
United States

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