This. Is. [NOT.] Jeopardy. Thoughts On How to Write an Apprentice Exam

Thoughts On How to Write an Apprentice Exam

The first apprentice exam was all about housing cooperatives.
The first apprentice exam was all about housing cooperatives.

One of the responsibilities of an attorney supervising legal apprentices in California is to administer an exam to apprentices once per month. When I sat down to write the first apprentice exam, it suddenly hit me that I had no idea what I was doing. “Pretend you are a Jeopardy contestant,” I told myself, “start with the answers, and then write a question that would elicit that answer.” But, no. A game of Jeopardy is about right and wrong answers/questions, and practicing law is about interpreting, arguing, analyzing, and navigating within vast grey areas.  “Hmm…,” I thought, “writing an exam is harder than taking one!”

To make things easier for myself, I do imagine that a large number of exams that SELC apprentices take over the next four years will simulate the inevitable bar exam, and that I’ll be able to borrow exam questions straight from the study books.  But if our apprentices only study the topics on the bar exam, they will not be prepared to practice law. So I also need to learn to write exams that will stimulate our apprentices to learn and apply practical legal knowledge.

The topic of my first apprentice exam – cooperative housing law – was helpfully suggested by Christina Oatfield, who apprentices with attorney Jenny Kassan. As SELC’s Policy Director, Christina felt a particular urgency to learn about cooperative housing law, since she will be responsible for explaining to many legislators about the purpose of AB 1024, a co-op housing related bill that SELC helped to draft and introduce this year.  It seemed worthwhile to prepare my own apprentices to explain that bill, as well. Thus, the first exam was a teaching tool, prompting the apprentices to learn about cooperative housing.

I organized a three hour class/discussion on the topic, assigned the real estate law chapter of my book as reading, and sent the apprentices about 4 pages of California statutes to read in advance of the exam. For anyone who is interested, here’s a link to the actual exam.

After writing the first exam, I now see that there are a few formulas I can use in writing future exams.

  • Questions that call on apprentices to read statutes and apply them to a scenario. The statutes I attached to the exam are not easy to read, which is why I sent them in advance.  Questions # 1-6 called on apprentices to apply rules in the statute to fake client scenario.  At least one of the questions (#3) would have demanded an extremely sharp eye to the wording of the statute, in order to note that the statute applies only to corporations, and not to LLCs. I didn’t really expect apprentices to catch that detail (and they didn’t), but figured it was worth a try, in order to begin to emphasize the importance of reading and questioning every word in a statute.
  • Questions that call on apprentices to make an argument from within a legal grey area.  A few questions I included on the exam (questions #7-9) could have had many right answers, and it just depends on what side an apprentice decides to argue.  I was looking to see whether the apprentice made a persuasive case for their answer.  It was actually fun to see that apprentices did, in fact, come out on different sides of the issues, and made good arguments for their case.
  • Questions that call on apprentices to explain or apply legal concepts they have memorized. For example, it’s useful to be able to tell someone what a housing cooperative is – on the stop and without looking up the definition. I didn’t include this type of question on the first exam, but may do it on future exams and will likely alert my apprentices that there are some concepts worth memorizing in advance. The bar exam, of course, will demand a great deal of memorization. But if my memory serves, a lot of what I memorized for the bar exam was information of a nature that is not necessary for a practicing lawyer to have memorized.
  • Questions that call on apprentices to explain something in plain English. Question #5 asked apprentices to explain what a “blanket encumbrance” is.  Even though it’s defined in the statutes I included in the exam, knowing how to explain something like that in plain English is incredibly useful.

I imagine I’ll expand on these lessons in future blog posts, as I continue to muddle through the work of creating apprentice exams. Comments and ideas are very welcome here!