Faculty Share Memories of Exams Past

December 17, 2007

Dec. 17, 2007 — In the spirit of the season, several faculty members shared their memories of exams from when they were law students at Virginia.

James Ryan ’92
Academic Associate Dean; William L. Matheson & Robert M. Morgenthau Distinguished Professor of Law; Joseph C. Carter, Jr., Research Professor

The very first exam I took was for Ken Abraham’s torts class. I had no idea what to expect, really; I hadn’t bothered to look up old exams and didn’t really know what law school exams were like. I figured they were like college exams, so that I’d have to regurgitate verbatim what I had learned in class and from the reading.

I was shocked when I read the first question, which had something to do with a Vietnam veteran who had post-traumatic stress disorder and ended up crashing a helicopter into someone’s house. I remember looking around the room—it was a fixed exam—to see if anyone else had the same question: Is this the right exam? I mean, is this an exam for Ken Abraham’s torts class? Because we NEVER talked about helicopters, post-traumatic stress disorder, or Vietnam veterans. Sure, we might have talked about airplanes, negligence, and physical or mental conditions that might relieve responsibility for accidents. But we NEVER talked about helicopters or post-traumatic stress disorder. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been given the wrong exam.

It never dawned on me, until that point, that I might have to take principles I had learned from class and apply them to a completely new situation. I’m sure I was told about this before the exam; it just didn’t sink in until the exam was in front of me and all I could think, over and again, was: Helicopters? Helicopters? Helicopters?

Richard Bonnie '69
Harrison Foundation Professor of Medicine and Law; Professor of Psychiatric Medicine; Director, University of Virginia Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy; Hunton & Williams Research Professor

Back in the Stone Age, when I was in Law School, first-year courses were all-year ordeals, and your entire future life depended on your performance on five 5-hour exams. Grades were also posted by name, and later by Social Security number. My recollection is that few, if any, exams were open-book.

Martha Ballenger ’69
Assistant Dean for Student Affairs

All exams were fixed, and short of death (your own), there was no excuse for missing the appointed time. If snow was predicted and you didn't live or have an accommodating friend within walking distance of Clark Hall, you spent the night in the student lounge. Although student camaraderie was great then, as it is today, there could be some slippage during exams, as illustrated by two incidents related to me by a student in the class ahead of me. When a student fainted during an exam, no one broke stride in writing, and the poor guy lay there on the floor until he came to on his own. On another occasion, a student had a meltdown during an exam and, sobbing, put his head down on the desk. The student sitting beside him was heard to say, "For God's sake, John, I'm trying to take an exam!" As callous as those incidents seem, I think they are reflective of our sense that there was no "give" in the system where exams were concerned.

Jason Dugas '01
Director of Admissions for Communications and Outreach

My law school roommate was taking a true take-home exam (don’t know if we still have those — you pick up the exam at a time of your choosing during the exam period and return it to the Registrar’s Office). Anyway, he had to catch a flight out of D.C. (I don’t know why he chose to take the exam so close to his departure time) and when he completed his exam, he asked his girlfriend to slide it under the Registrar’s door (which was acceptable) before the deadline. When the girlfriend got to the Registrar’s Office, the Registrar happened to be walking out, so the girlfriend simply handed the exam to her. The Registrar recognized that the girlfriend was not the same as the student on the exam and refused to accept it. Fortunately, the girlfriend had gone to turn in the exam with a good deal of time remaining. So, because this was before the ubiquity of cell phones, she hauled up Route 29 to catch my roommate so he could return to Charlottesville to turn in his exam or else he would receive an “F” for the class. Happily, she did catch him and he did return to turn it in within the time period….but he missed his flight.

Yared Getachew ’98
Director of Public Service; Director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center

Before we took our first exam, my buddy and I consulted a faculty member on how to approach law school exams. The professor, now a colleague and a good friend, told us not to worry — that the issues would “jump out at [us]” the moment we read the exam. After reading a fact pattern on one of my first exams, I remember wondering at which point the issues should start jumping. I cut a glance at my buddy who was also looking in my direction, his face completely ashen. I started laughing quietly to myself and we almost lost it. I think that the brief moment of levity was important for both of us — it allowed us to shake off our nerves, an important ingredient in law school exam-taking.

Earl Dudley '67
Professor of Law

I had been a very diligent law student until the demands of the managing board of the Law Review intervened. We were in deep trouble — five issues behind — and with the basic acquiescence of the faculty, the members of the managing board pretty much stopped doing everything else, including going to class, in order to catch up. The good news is that we did catch up, but the bad news is that we were so exhausted at the end of our year that we did not return to being the diligent law students we had been before. My wife was pregnant, due to give birth on May 24. On May 19, my best friend and fellow managing board member, Rick Lowery, and I settled in at my apartment to study for Ed Cohen's corporate tax exam. We literally tore the cellophane covers off our virgin copies of the casebook. Neither of us had been to a single class in the course. About 11:00 that evening, when we still had not figured out what sections of the Internal Revenue Code we were responsible for, my wife emerged from our bedroom and said, “I hope you guys know all the Corporate Tax you need to know, because I think things are starting to happen.” Not for her the typical long labor preceding a first delivery. Very shortly she was having contractions every three minutes. For some reason Rick's car was not at our house, so the three of us piled in our car and headed for the hospital, with Louise doubling over it seemed every few hundred yards.

At the hospital Rick and I headed for the fathers' waiting room, casebooks and Internal Revenue Codes in hand. We tried to continue studying. I recall overhearing one of the nurses say, with a sneer in her voice, “Isn't that nice? He brought his friend with him.” A little after 2 a.m., the doctor emerged from an elevator, still in his scrubs, blood from the knees down, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. I was sure everyone had died, but he announced that I had a healthy baby boy and that he and Louise were doing very well.

In those days there were no extensions on exams. My choice was to take the exam at 9 in the morning or wait until the course was given again, which would mean that I would not graduate. I took the exam. Somehow I got a “gentleman’s” 2.5 [on a 4.0 scale].

At graduation, Mr. Cohen, who had a son in my class and whom I had gotten to know fairly well, invited me and a number of other graduates to a party. As we were leaving, he took my mother aside and said, “I really agonized over Earl's grade. I knew his wife had had a baby early in the morning, but I also knew that he had not been to class all semester, and I couldn't figure out which to take into account.” My mother's jaw dropped, as her last illusion about her hard-working law student son was swept away.