What inspires the scenarios and characters in your final exam questions?

As we wrap up another season of grading, I return to the thought that grading finals can feel like reading the same story again and again. This task is slightly more entertaining for me if the story involves some interesting characters or scenarios. Here are a few places I look for inspiration when I write final exams.

  1. Real Cases. Sometimes, a case in the news serves as inspiration for a final exam. That happened this fall when my PR final posed a question involving a lawyer who solicited clients in a funeral home in a state where he was not licensed. Other times, I work backwards and pick an issue I want to address in my final (like Rule 19 in civil procedure) and then find a case involving that issue. (For the Rule 19 case, I once used a scenario based on Diaz v. Glen Plaid in which the defendant asserted that the University of Alabama was an indispensable party in a case involving the trademark-protected image of a houndstooth elephant).
  2. TV Lawyers. The set-up for my essay question is often a memo from a lawyer asking a junior lawyer to help with a client’s problem. I often base that senior lawyer’s name on a tv lawyer. Through the years, those attorneys have included Alicia Florrick, Ally McBeal, Jimmy McGill, Kim Wexler, and many others. The facts have nothing to do with these lawyers or their tv shows. The names are really just for my personal amusement.
  3. Other Characters from TV and the Movies. Beyond tv lawyers, I sometimes look to other tv shows and movies for inspiration for scenarios and character names. My civil procedure exam once described a federal lawsuit arising from a bowling accident involving characters from The Big Lebowski. Knowledge of the movie does not help exam performance, but often inspires a joke (perhaps something about a rug that really tied the room together) that makes exam grading easier for a moment. I have learned not to make the scenarios sound too much like something that might be happening on the actual show. (During the show’s heyday, a student complained I had included “spoilers” in an exam question involving Nashville. I assured her that the scenario was just my imagination and that I had not spoiled anything she was planning to watch on DVR once finals were over).
  4. People I Know.  Even if I have the scenario, it is hard to come up with the multitude of character names needed for a three-hour exam. I tend to return again and again to the names of people I know. Most of my exams include character names inspired by my childhood neighbors, elementary school classmates, and law school friends. (I finally admitted this to my law school friends and the conversation quickly turned to how much worse it is to take a law school exam than to write or grade it. I did not try to win that fight).  My civil procedure exam typically includes a character named after my own civ pro professor.
  5. People My Students Know. Finally, another source of character names is people that my students know: their own law professors. I would never use my colleagues’ names in a scandalous scenario, but rather in a (mildly) funny scenario that the students will appreciate. For example, a multiple choice question on my civil procedure exam described my students’ contracts professor suing me for breach of contract.

In truth, reading dozens of exams involving these characters does not make the month of December “fun” (or make it feel like the “vacation” that my mom thinks I get at this time each year).  But it helps a little.

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One Response

  1. Great article!

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