How to Write a Legal Essay Question
A law essay question requires you to make an argument about some aspect of the law. For example, it might ask whether Bloggs vs Smith was correctly decided, how would you reform the law of murder, and so on. This guide provides tips and tricks for improving your legal essay writing skills.
What is the Question Actually Asking You?
The number one rule of answering any law essay question is RTFQ – ATFQ.
Read the flaming question, answer the flaming question.
Here is a common complaint by law examiners every year. Many students read the question once, see its on a particular topic, and regurgitate everything they know about that topic. As a result, the student fails to actually provide any kind of answer to what was asked.
If a question asks you to discuss the abolition of life sentences, don’t explain everything you know about murder. 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 write should relate to your answer.
Analysing the Question for Greater Depth
Take some time to analyse the language of the question. You should be asking yourself the following questions:
Are there any underlying assumptions the question makes? Should those assumptions be taken for granted, or can you challenge them? How might this affect your answer to the question?
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 this affect your answer to the question?
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 question’s structure and language.
‘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, Tripos Part IB Exam Paper May 2012]
The quote here raises 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 something is a threat to it.
A good answer to this question would explain this. It would then outline the different views on the concept of international law, and argue that one particular view is the best. Only then would the student discuss whether the law relating to persistent objectors is a threat to general international law.
Formulate a Balanced Argument
An essay question requires a balanced analysis of all sides of any academic debate. Do not give an entirely one-sided answer. However, do not do the opposite of this either. A completely neutral, non-committal essay is equally shallow: don’t conclude that both sides have good points without saying one is better. You need to have an argument.
Start the essay knowing what your argument will be. Work out how you are going to show that you have the correct way of looking at things. Always discuss criticisms that could be made of your points and how you would deal with them. If the other side have strong rebuttals, 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 a statement of what you will argue, and end with you having successfully argued it. If something is not relevant to the flow of your argument, do not put it in.
High-Level Answers and Abstract Thought
Law examiners love an argument where all the sections link together, playing off elements of previous sections and flowing naturally. There is a straightforward way of achieving this. Come up with some underlying, philosophical or policy-based thesis this area of law is based on. Then, think about how you can tie your argument into that.
For example, say you are asked to discuss whether sado-masochism should be an exception to the rule against consenting to ABH. A good answer will first consider: what is the point of criminalising behaviour that only really harms yourself? Is it paternalism? If so, does the law generally take a paternalist approach? Or does it instead generally protect 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 does not follow a coherent principle. If so, you likely need to argue that it needs reform. Or, you might conclude that the law does follow a coherent principle. You might argue that this is a good principle to follow, in which case the law should stay as it is. Alternatively, you could argue that the law should not be based on this principle: it should be based on another. With this done you can answer the question. Sado-masochism should be an exception if it fits the philosophical/policy-based principles that you claim should underpin the criminal law.
This type of thinking helps essay flow. You are linking every stage of your argument to a broader argument about abstract principles. It also means you are evaluating the law deeply, which can greatly enhance your marks.
Using Secondary Commentary
Evidence of wider reading, normally academic articles or specialist books, is necessary for top grades when you are writing a law essay. However, it is important to fully understand the arguments being made, and how they relate to other ideas. You will not get any extra marks for merely saying ‘X argues that Y is true’. You need to be able to explain why X makes this argument and how it might be criticised. Examiners are able to see through this kind of shallow ‘name dropping’.
Once you’ve read an academic article, sit back for a while. Think about how they relate to your own views. Academic arguments should support your views, not be a wholesale replacement of them. Don’t do an essay on what X thinks about a subject, do an essay on what you think about it. Inform your view with the academic’s analysis, supporting arguments and potential criticisms of your position.
Don’t Hedge Your Bets (and Other Stylistic Tips)
If there’s one thing most law professors hate, its reading a phrase like ‘it seems from the evidence that there might be a possibility of supporting the argument that…’.
Confidence in essay-writing is not something that is stressed enough at school or university. People who aren’t confident are tempted to hedge their bets with language like ‘probably’ and ‘it might be the case’. Resist that urge. If your analysis is correct, the person marking the essay may have doubts as to how firmly you grasp the material if you do not sound confident in your conclusions. If your analysis is not correct, saying ‘probably’ in front of the error won’t help in any case.
Other stylistic tips for writing a professional sounding essay include:
- Avoid contractions (‘don’t’, ‘can’t’), slang phrases and other informal language;
- Avoid the phrase ‘it is submitted that’. This kind of wording is for moots and legal debating, not academic legal essays;
- Try to deal with only one issue per paragraph. This makes the essay less visually intimidating;
- If simple language and short sentences get your point across, use simple language and short sentences. There is a temptation to sound ‘professional’ by using multi-clauses sentences and complex vocabulary. This it just makes the essay harder to read.
Cite, Cite and Cite Again
If you are ever making a positive claim about the law, back it up with a citation. What proves your claim? A case? A statutory provision? Cite it. You must assure the marker that you aren’t just making lucky guesses. Many institutions’ grading criteria specify that you can’t achieve anything above a 2:2 with insufficient citation.
Generally there is no need to give the year, report and page number of case-law in exams. However, you should check your university’s best practice guidelines to know for sure.