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How To Write Law Essays for University and College

Updated on September 22, 2016
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So how do you write great law essays for university, college or Law School? Whether you are just starting out as a law student or are just looking for ways to improve your essay writing technique (and your grades!), then this article will be right up your alley.

I have a first class law degree from Cambridge University in the UK and an Master of Laws from Harvard in the US, so I've had a huge amount of experience in writing legal essays of all kinds. These techniques come from a combination of my own experience and the advice of my professors, supervisors and tutors.

How to Write a Legal Problem Essay

Problem question essays are ones in which you are given an imaginary (and often convoluted) scenario and asked to comment on the legal issues that arise, and advise one or more of the parties.

Structuring Your Legal Analysis

A mistake a lot of under-performing law students routinely make when writing a scenario law essay is looking at the facts, recognising that they are similar to a case they’ve read, and then immediately diving in with ‘this is like Joe Bloggs vs John Smith’. Examiners are constantly complaining that law essays lack coherent structure and consequently lack any kind of deep analysis. Instead, what you should do is adopt a structure for each type of problem scenario.

Say you have an problem on whether or not there has been an infringement of UK copyright law, and the facts look similar to a particular case you’ve read on a defence to copyright infringement. Your first instinct is to start talking about defences. Stop. Ignore the similarity completely for now, and think. Before we can even discuss defences, we need to talk about whether the defendant is liable for copyright infringement at all. What does the law actually require me to establish to put liability on someone?

Develop a set of steps that you put every scenario relating to that area of the law through in order. For example, mine for copyright can be summarized in the mnemonic ‘SOOTIE’: Subject matter (the type of works at issue), originality, ownership, term (has the copyright expired), infringements (has an infringing use been established), exceptions and defences.

This doesn’t mean you have devote a whole paragraph to every step. If its uncontroversial that B owns the copyright (or the problem just flat out tells you), a single sentence pointing this out will suffice. The most controversial and difficult points should be given the majority of your essay’s attention. The important thing however is that you have completed each necessary step in the order in which they arose and in the order in which a court of law would most naturally consider them. It also stops you missing interesting elements of problem questions that you would otherwise miss by skipping straight to the most obvious step.

Structuring Your Law Essay

Often times there will be more than one set of laws or crimes at issue across a single problem question. Or, it might be the same area of law, but you have to discuss how it affects different people in different positions in the scenario. The structure method I explained above will allow you to organize the structure of each issue, but how do you organize the essay as a whole?

A good rule is to deal with each area of the law in turn, giving each its own separate section rather than commenting on each event chronologically. There are exceptions to this, for example in criminal law it is logical to discuss each crime in the order it arises, but in that case you are still devoting a separate section to each crime without mixing them all up in a jumbled mess.

As for which sections should come first, always be on the lookout for areas of the law which might then affect other laws or later parts of the question, and do those first. For example, if X is suing B for copyright infringement (selling their CDs without permission lets say) and Y is in turn suing X for copyright infringement (claiming X actually plagiarized the song on the CD from Y), you want to discuss B’s liability to X first, since if B is liable to X, and then you establish in the next section that X is liable to Y, you can also discuss whether Y can sue B as well, drawing on your conclusions from the previous two sections.

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Not Enough Information Given?

It is completely fine to state ‘the problem question does not give us enough information’. If the law of copyright would require us to evaluate the lyrics of a song to see if a substantial part of the lyrics were copied from somewhere else and the problem scenario doesn’t give you the lyrics, do not fret about pointing that out.

However, saying that there isn’t enough information is NOT enough. You must then go on to say what information you would need to evaluate how the law applies to the facts, and then explain how the law would apply to the facts if the right information was available. For example, in my copyright example, you would explain that you would need to see the lyrics and then outline how the law would apply to lyrics that did copy a substantial part, and then summarize what would happen if it didn’t. This shows you are thinking like a lawyer – it is as if a client has walked in and given half the facts, and based on your legal knowledge you are able to ask the right questions and evaluate the facts whatever they turn out to be.

Here's a good video summary of the above points with a few extra hints.

Be on the Alert For Red Herrings

Sometimes a bit of information might be thrown at you that actually has nothing to do at all with the law or the outcome of a case and has no bearing at all on the answer to a question. Yes, this actually happens some times in set problem questions, the people who write them are a bit sadistic like that.

About half the people answering the question will panic and start guessing at how the information is relevant to the problem. Don’t be one of them. When this happens it is always good to comment on it though – just point out that the information is a red herring that has no relevance to the facts of the case. You can get bonus points too if you can come up with some quick explanation as to why the law doesn't consider this kind of factor of information relevant to the legal outcome, if there is one.

For example, occasionally in UK problem questions on commercial law, some one will leave their painting at an art dealer, notice that the art dealer has accidentally put it up for auction when they were told not to, and then decide to call them up to correct the mistake after lunch, only to promptly forget until it is too late. People in law problem questions are a bit daft like that.

At this point our 50% of panicked law students will start racking their brains for any kind of legal principle that can be used to make the fact that the owner of the painting is a bit daft relevant to the outcome, for example by discussing estoppel by negligence. The problem is that UK commercial law doesn't have any legal principles that let you lose ownership of your painting via your own carelessness, so all of those 50% of students have just wasted time discussing something irrelevant. What a good student would have done is realized it was irrelevant and said so.

How to Write a Better Academic Law Essays

This type of essay will require you to make an argument regarding some facet of the law – was Joe Bloggs vs John Smith correctly decided, how would you reform the law in this area, and so on.

What is the Question Actually Asking You?

This doesn’t just apply to law essays. My Chemistry teacher at A level would always write in big red letters on our essays ‘RTFQ, ATFQ’. Read the flaming question, answer the flaming question. Too many people skim a question, realize it is on a certain topic, and then promptly word vomit everything they know about that topic onto a page, whether the information is relevant or not. As a result they fail to actually provide any kind of answer to what was asked.

If a question asks you to discuss whether life sentences should be abolished, don’t start ranting about everything your know about murder and life sentences. Your essay should provide an actual answer – yes they should be abolished, no they shouldn’t be abolished, or no they shouldn’t be abolished but they should be reformed. Every piece of information and every line of argument you give should relate to your answer.

Analyzing the Question for Greater Depth

Take some time to analyse the language of the question. Are there any underlying assumptions the question makes, and should those assumptions be taken for granted, or can you challenge them? Are there any terms in the question that need to be defined, and is there any controversy over the definition of the word or phrase? How might the truth or falsity of the assumptions or the different definitions of a key phrase affect how an adherent to either view would approach and answer the question, and which view do you take?

Take the following exam essay question taken from an International Law paper. You don’t need to know anything about International law, we are just going to look at the structure and language of the question.

  • ‘The concept of persistent objector is contrary to the entire idea of a general international law common to all states.’ (DUMBERRY referring to CONFORTI)

    How real is the threat of the persistent objector to general international law? [Cambridge University, Law of Contract Tripos Part IB Exam Paper May 2012]

In the quote there is an immediate issue – what actually is the ‘entire idea of a general international law common to all states’? Unless you establish what the purpose of general international law is, how it is achieved and how it operates, it is impossible to say whether a given concept is a threat to it. A good answer to this question would explain this, and then proceed to outline the different views on what the concept of general international law are, and what they think the correct one is. THEN they would discuss whether the law relating to persistent objectors is a threat to this concept.

Actually Have an Argument, But Don't Be One Sided

Firstly there is basic essay writing etiquette – this isn’t an opportunity for a one sided rant about what you believe in, its an academic analysis of all sides of the debate. Don’t forget this.

However, don’t do the complete opposite of this and have a completely neutral and non-committal essay. Don’t conclude that both sides have good points and you don’t know which is right. You need to have an argument. Start the essay knowing what your argument will be and work out how you are going to show that this is the correct way of looking at things. To do this while keeping it balanced, always discuss criticisms that could be made of your points and how you would deal with them. If the other side have strong points in their favour, don’t ignore them: address them and explain why you don’t find them convincing.

The argument should flow and different elements of your argument should be dealt with in different sections. If it helps, use headings to make sure you stick to the point and don’t go off on irrelevant tangents. Every paragraph should start with an assertion of what you will argue, and must end with you having successfully argued it. Don’t shove things in if they aren’t relevant to the argument or the question.

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Think Abstractly

Law essay markers love an argument where all the sections really link together, where each in spirit plays off elements of previous sections and flows naturally. And luckily, it is very easy to pull this off. While you are planning your law essay, take a long think about whether you can come up with some underlying, philosophical or policy-based thesis this area of law is based on, and then think about how you can tie your argument into that.

For example, if the question wants me to discuss whether sado-masochism should be an exception to the rule that says you can’t consent to bodily harm, a good answer will first consider: what is the point of criminalizing behavior that only really harms yourself? Is it paternalism? If so, does the law generally take a paternalist approach, or is it very much in favor of an individual’s liberty to harm themselves as they please? How do the other exceptions to the rule fit into a paternalist or a liberty-based concept of the law?

You might conclude that the law as it stands does not follow a coherent principle, in which case you will argue that the law is in need of reform. If it does follow a coherent principle, you can argue whether the law in this area should be based on this principle or another one. With this done you can answer the question – sado-masochism should be an exception to the rule of no consent to bodily harm if it fits in with the philosophical/policy based principles that you claim does or should underline the whole of this area of law.

This type of thinking not only helps essay flow, since you are linking every stage of your argument to a broader argument about abstract principles, but it also necessarily means you are evaluating the law incredibly deeply, which will catapult you into higher marks.

Here's a good video with some general tips for legal coursework and essay writing.

Read Secondary Material, But Don't Parrot It

Showing evidence that you have done a wide range of reading outside of the textbook, normally academic articles or specialist books, is pretty much necessary for top grades. So do as much as you can, but make sure that you actually take in what the academics have to say. You want to be able to understand their arguments and be able to discuss them. You don’t want to just be able to say X argues that this Y is true and not be able to go into any more detail about the nature of his argument or possible criticisms. This is just name dropping, and the people marking your essay will see right through it.

Once you’ve read the articles, sit back for a while and think about how they relate to your own views. In the previous section I discussed having an argument – this requires you to have thought about and formed a view as to the state of the area of law and what is good about it and what should be changed. Academic arguments should support your views, not be a wholesale replacement of them. Don’t do an essay on what Academic B thinks about a subject, does an essay on what you think about it, informed by the academics analysis, supporting arguments and criticisms of your position.

General Tips for Writing Law Essays

Don't Hedge Your Bets

If there’s one thing most law professors hate is coming across a phrase like ‘it seems from the evidence that there might be a possibility of supporting the argument that…’. Don’t laugh, we’ve all done it.

Its difficult to maintain a high level of confidence when writing an essay on a subject that (chances are) you’ve only had a few days to prepare for. Many feel the urge when they aren’t sure they are right to start hedging their bets with language like ‘probably’ and ‘it might be the case that’. Resist that urge. Even if your analysis is right, the person marking the essay is going to have doubts as to how firmly you grasp the material if you are constantly writing as if you are unsure of what you are talking about. If you are wrong, sticking a ‘probably’ in front of the error won’t help you anyway.

Also, don’t use the phrase ‘it is submitted that’. That’s for moots and legal debating, not academic legal essays.

Cite, Cite, and Cite Again.

If you are ever making any kind of positive claim about the state of the law (and since you’re a law student, you will be doing this every third sentence), back it up with a citation. What proves your claim? A case? A statutory provision? Cite it, and cite it in full. You need to assure the marker that you aren’t just making lucky guesses, and in any case many institutions have grading criteria that specify that you can’t achieve anything above a certain mark (usually a very low one) if there is insufficient citation.

Good Luck!

That’s my guide to writing good law essays. If you found it useful or have anything more to add, leave me a message below! You might also want to check out my guide for studying for exams too. Good luck with your studies!

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    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 2 years ago from Cape Cod

      Thanks for sharing. My paternal side is Sicilian, but on my Mother's side, if I go back a couple hundred years I have roots in the UK!!!! God Save the Queen and thanks for likin' the Sox!

    • DesignSpace profile image
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      DesignSpace 2 years ago

      Boston and Cambridge were absolutely lovely, though the winter was seriously too cold! It was crazy. I saw the Red Sox while I was there, I'm not really a sports fan but I figured it was one of those things you have to do while your there. It was pretty fun! Have some cool postcards of the stadium there too.

      The two Cambridges have a lot of similarities, though the UK one is a lot smaller and older. I couldn't say which was my favorite, love them both! :) Americans are really friendly though, it always put a smile on my face. Us Englishmen are a bit introverted in comparison.

    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 2 years ago from Cape Cod

      Not being a law student or even a law breaker, I am not able to relate closely to your work, but you certainly have done a fine job on this hub.

      So you have completed courses in Cambridge UK and Cambridge USA! Please tell us how you liked our Cambridge and Boston and how it compares to the UK. Did you get to see a Red Sox baseball game or an American Football game in Foxboro?