Tag Archives: IRAC

Tackling Conclusory Legal Analysis

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.

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4 Key Skills for Successful Law School Essay Exams

Today, I want to talk about 4 key skills that law students must have to be successful on law school essay exams: (1) attention to detail; (2) strong organization; (3) time management; and (4) clear and concise communication.

Attention to Detail: First, you must pay attention to detail. Initially, you should read the instructions carefully, and make sure that you follow those instructions. If there is a word count limit, note that from the beginning. If the instructions limit the areas of law that are being tested, don’t ignore those limitations. Don’t lose points because you didn’t pay attention to your professor’s instructions.

You must also pay close attention to the factual details in the essay question. Every fact in the hypothetical is there for a reason. Don’t miss legal issues because you’ve read the question too quickly and superficially. Moreover, make sure that you pay particular attention to the call of the question, which is usually the last two or three lines of the essay question. Don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked.

Strong Organization: Second, it is important to organize your essay so that the essay makes sense and your professor can follow your analysis. A rambling essay will miss important points, and it may make it hard for your professor to follow your arguments. Once you have read the question, make sure that you take the time to outline or chart your answer before you start writing. An organized answer will score better than one that is disorganized.

Make sure that you apply the IRAC, CREAC, or TREAC structure for each legal issue that you’ve identified. For the most part, do not blend together your analysis of each legal issue—instead, keep each one separate to make sure that you get full credit for the parts of your analysis.

Time Management: Third, successful law students know how to manage their time on exams. Before you start writing, you should look over the entire exam. See how many questions are on the exam and what each question is worth. If the professor has suggested that you spend a specific amount of time on each question, make note of those suggestions. If not, you should allocate your time based on how much that part of the exam is worth. Write down the time that you should be ending each answer to keep yourself on track. With essay questions, it is recommended that you spend about one-fourth to one-third of the time reading the question and outlining or charting your answer, and the remainder of the time writing or typing your answer.

Clear and Concise Communication: Finally, be clear and concise in how you communicate your answer. Use terms of art where appropriate, but communicate points in a straightforward way. You need to communicate all parts of the required analysis, but don’t just ramble. If you are concise in your writing, you will have more time to develop other legal issues presented in the question.

You should be explicit about any assumptions you are making in your answer. If a there is a four-part test for a legal rule, but only one or two parts of that test are at issue in the question, state explicitly that the other parts do not appear to be at issue. Don’t assume that your professor will “read your mind.”

When combined with a good study strategy, these skills contribute to success on law school essay exams. Develop your strategies for taking essay exams prior to the final exam period, and you’re more likely to have good results.

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Law School Exams and the IRAC Method

There is a general method for developing strong arguments and analysis in law school, whether you are working on an assignment for your Legal Writing class or taking an essay exam. You’ve heard of this method before—it’s called IRAC, which refers to Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. There are numerous variations of the method, so your professors may also refer to it as CREAC (Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion), TREAC (Thesis, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion), or some similar title.

Regardless of what your professor calls this method, there are common things that you must do as part of it:

(1) identify each issue raised in the hypothetical fact pattern;

(2) decide which legal rule(s) are relevant for each issue and set forth a statement of the rule(s), with exceptions as applicable;

(3) explain how the rule(s) should be applied to the facts in the exam question; and

(4) conclude how the issue is likely to be resolved.

As part of this process, you must show the reasoning that you’ve relied upon in reaching the conclusion for each issue. Make sure that you address relevant counterarguments and policy arguments in your analysis. As you write, be careful not to be too conclusory—don’t jump too quickly from the issue to the conclusion. You have to “show your work” to get full credit for each issue in a law school essay.

Most professors give you credit for developing each part of the IRAC formula. Generally, fewer points are associated with your identification of the issue and your conclusion; more points are associated with your articulation of the rules that are relevant to the issue and how you apply those rules to the hypothetical facts.

The secret of doing well on law exams lies not only in what you know, but how you apply what you know. You get little credit for just stating a legal conclusion, even if you are correct. You must explain how the law is applied to the facts in the hypothetical, and how your conclusion results from that analysis.

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Essay Exams Are About the Journey, Not Just the Destination (Part 1): Show Your Work!

Image courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Gualberto107/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Like most law students, you are probably beginning final exams this week, if you aren’t already in the midst of them. In support of your hard work, this week’s posts will focus on tips to improve your performance on essay exams. It’s important to remember that essay exams are about the journey, not just the destination. The right “answer” is only one small part of your essay-writing task.

Remember when you were in math class as a child, and the teacher counted off if you didn’t “show your work”? You would get the right answer, but because you did the calculations in your head rather than on paper, you didn’t get full credit for the problem. Your teacher wanted to make sure that you actually knew how to apply the appropriate rules and formulas–that your correct answer wasn’t just a lucky guess. The same rules apply to law school essay exams—in order to be successful, you must show your work!

So what do I mean by “show your work” in your essay? As you know from previous law school exams, law professors create essay questions that each raise a number of legal issues. The question will set out a number of facts that relate to each legal issue. Your job is to identify the issues and answer the questions found at the end of the fact pattern. This is Law Exam 101—the basics.

In reality, your professor has assigned a point value to each legal issue, and that point value is connected in some way to the issue’s degree of complexity and the facts associated with the issue. Your professor expects you to develop your discussion of that issue using some type of IRAC/CREAC/TREAC formula. The only way to get all of the points is to show your work by going through the entire IRAC process for each issue. (Note: minor issues with limited facts and little legal complexity will take much less space to IRAC, which makes sense because those issues are also worth fewer points).

Let’s take a look at a quick example. Maybe in a Torts essay question, one of the issues is whether John was negligent when he drove his car into the back of Mary’s car. Maybe the professor has decided that this first issue was worth ten points. The professor might award one point for identifying the issue, and another point for your conclusion that John was negligent. But there are still eight points outstanding. The professor may assign three points to your discussion of the relevant legal rules that applied for this issue, and another five points for your analysis of how those rules apply to the relevant facts. If you skip from issue identification to conclusion, you will only earn two out of ten points! But even if you go a little further and set out the relevant rules for that issue, you still will only get half of the points unless you explain how those rules apply to the facts in the essay question. A successful essay will fully develop all parts of the IRAC analysis for each issue.

The key is to show your work—don’t leave anything in your brain, but instead put it all on the page!

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Law School and Robonauts

robonauts

A number of years ago I had a summer faculty fellowship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the robotics lab, where NASA and academic collaborators were designing a robonaut with artificial intelligence. The goal was to create a robot that could help astronauts make repairs to the space station during space walks. The researcher demonstrated the robonaut’s capabilities for us, ordering it to hand him specific tools. Amazingly, the robonaut could “look” at several tools, choose the correct one, and hand it to the researcher. I was impressed–but then the researcher pointed out something even more incredible. Not only did the robonaut know which tool to choose, it also knew that if it picked up the tool (such as a hammer) by its handle, it would be offering it to the astronaut in a way that would make it less helpful. The astronaut would have to grasp the top of the hammer, rather than the handle–the hammer would not be immediately useful. Because the researcher had spent time thinking about the application of his efforts, the robonaut was designed in a way that made it much more useful to astronauts. The robonaut knew to offer the tool so that the astronaut could grasp the handle.

Law students can learn a lot from the robonaut. What’s important in your work is not just what you put into an exam essay, outline, brief, or other writing assignment–it’s also important to consider how that information is presented to the reader. You should always keep in mind your audience when you are writing, and what that audience needs from you in order to find your writing helpful. That’s one of the reasons why law professors tell students to use the IRAC/TREAC/CREAC formulas as an organizational approach to legal writing. The more that you keep in mind your audience when you are writing, the more you will give the reader what he or she needs to follow your legal arguments and analysis.

Law school outlines work in much the same way. You can spend countless hours putting together an outline for a course, but if the information in that outline is not organized properly it is only so useful. Instead, when creating your outline, you should think about how you might apply information from that outline to an exam. If you organize your outline with its application in mind, you will complete exams more efficiently and effectively. So what do I mean by this? Because law students read and brief cases for most classes, there is a natural tendency to organize outlines around cases. But this is not how you would use this information on the exam–instead, the first thing you would need is the key legal rules, principles, tests, or policies that are illustrated by these cases. Analogizing facts in an essay question to facts in a case you read may be a part of your analysis, but first you must discuss the applicable law. If you organize your outline first around legal rules and then use cases and hypotheticals to illustrate those rules, your outline will function like the robonaut–providing you with course information in the most helpful way.

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