Clearly, the Answer is not “Obvious”

Professors craft complex and nuanced fact patterns for their exams. They spend a great deal of time drafting exam problems without clear answers, problems that allow students to differentiate themselves based on their grasp of the material. Do not insult them by including words or phrases like the following in your answers: “clearly,” “obviously,” “the only sensible conclusion,” “without a doubt.”

First of all, those words are inapposite, as the answer will not be clear or obvious. Trust me. Second, those words are rude because the professor wrote the exam to test the edges of your knowledge, not your grasp of the obvious. Accordingly, such descriptions are likely to irritate your professor. And clearly you do not want to do that.

Instead, use words and phrases that honor the complexity of the fact pattern and the competing legal, equitable and policy interests at stake. For instance, rather than saying “clearly, he is liable,” how about “taken as a whole, applicable precedent indicates that a court is likely to find him liable.” In lieu of “without a doubt,” try “the strongest argument” or “although a defensible argument could be made that X, a better legal conclusion is Y.”

Originally published 2009-11-14. Republished 2016-12-07.

(comic: hartboy)

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  • This is good advice for lawyers as well. Not only is the issue rarely clear or obvious, but we’ve cheapened those words through over-use. To me, “clearly” or “obviously” is code for “I don’t have that strong of an argument”.

  • lynn

    Any advice/sources on how to write like a lawyer?

  • Yes. Don’t. Write like a normal person.

  • @lynn: beyond Sam’s snarky retort, pick up any book by Bryan Garner, especially The Winning Brief and A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Garner will help you write like a normal lawyer.

  • Warren

    I agree with the basic premise of this post–I hate when people in class say “clearly” or “obviously.” It tells me they just don’t “get” the law school thing. But I sorta read “honor the complexity of the fact pattern” in your post as “suck up to the professor.” I disagree with either phrasing.

    My favorite phrases for law school exams are “possibly,” “probably,” and “most likely.” They are short and therefore save time when you’re typing. But they still get the point across that you are taking a position (at least wrt the last two) and why.

    Rather than, “taken as a whole, applicable precedent indicates that a court is likely to find him liable,” I would use “He is probably liable because ___.” At least the first 7 words are still “writing like a lawyer” rather than a normal person. (See @Sam.)