One of the common comments that law students receive on their legal writing assignments and exams is that their analysis was too conclusory. Often, students don’t really understand what the professor means by this comment. Even if they do understand what the comment means, they don’t know what to do to improve their legal analysis.
So what does the professor mean when he or she writes that your analysis was conclusory? Legal analysis is conclusory when it jumps too quickly to the answer to the question without explaining how and why the answer is correct. For example, in your exam essay, you may have appropriately identified an issue, mentioned some of the facts related to that issue, and then concluded what the result should be for that issue. You may have thought that you appropriately explained your answer, but, in reality, you left too much of the answer in your head instead of putting it on the paper. This type of answer will generally receive limited credit from the professor.
There can be several reasons for conclusory analysis in an essay exam. First, most law school exams have time constraints—when students are concerned about running out of time, they tend to rush through their analysis so that they can move on to the next issue. This is particularly the case when the professor has designed an exam with more issues than are possible to cover during the time allotted. When you are trying to mention as many issues as possible, it is easy to gloss over more detailed analysis. Second, many students assume that they don’t need to explain the law that is applicable for an issue because the professor knows that law—they think that, because the professor taught them the material, they don’t need to explain why their answer is correct. Third, students often fail to fully develop their explanation of the relevant legal rules and how courts have interpreted those rules because students do not know that law well enough—they may not have memorized the appropriate tests or definitions, or they may not have thought about the course material in a way that allows them to connect what they have studied to the issue. Without that explanation of the applicable legal rules, there is no foundation for the rest of the analysis of that issue, and your legal analysis is vague and flat.
The problem with conclusory analysis is that it prevents you from receiving full credit for that issue. Professors generally give the smallest amount of credit for identification of the issue and your answer for how that issue should be resolved; most of the points for each issue are awarded for the parts in the middle—the explanation of the relevant legal rules and how courts interpret those rules, and how those rules should be applied to the fact pattern set out in the instant question. Even if you identify a lot of issues, you still will be lacking the points you need for a higher score on the exam. It’s a lot like what it used to be like in those math classes you took as a child, when your teacher wouldn’t give you full credit if you didn’t “show your work.” It isn’t enough to just get the right answer—the path you took to get there is important too.
So what can you do to make your legal analysis less conclusory? One way to make sure that you go through the appropriate analysis is to apply a form of the IRAC/TREAC/CREAC analytical structure that you have learned in legal writing. Each professor has his or her own preferences for the analytical structure, but usually your analysis should follow some sort of IRAC, TREAC, or CREAC form. Commonly, the professor prefers that you state the resolution of the issue up front, as either a thesis or conclusion, rather than just stating that the issue exists. Using an analytical structure helps to remind you not to skip important components of the analysis. It also allows you to demonstrate to your professor that you understand why the answer is the answer—you didn’t just get there by accident.
Although it may seem like you are taking away from the time you need to write, your analysis will usually be better, and therefore receive more points, if you quickly outline or chart your answer before starting to write your essay. Outlining in advance helps you to determine how much time you need to spend on your analysis of each issue. If the issue is not complex, the facts demonstrate that part of the legal test is not at issue, or there are few facts to apply to the law, that is a signal that you can be more concise in your analysis of that issue. You can state outright that two elements of the legal test aren’t at issue, based on the facts in the hypothetical, and move on quickly to the elements that need more development. You will make better use of your time as you write and score better because your analysis will be organized, focused, and efficient.
Finally, one of the key ways to improve your analysis is grounded in what happens before the exam. The more you have synthesized course materials by developing a strong, properly organized outline, the more you have committed to memory the legal rules, tests, definitions, etc. that will be the foundation to your analysis of issues on the exam, the better your written legal analysis will be. This is true whether your exam is open book or closed book, as grounding yourself in the law will help you to think about issues in a more nuanced way. How you approach your studies and preparation prior to the exam is directly related to the effectiveness of your legal analysis in your exam essays.