Answering law school exam essay questions is a specialized skill. Your objectives in answering essay questions are:
- Identify the legal issues.
- State the legal rules applicable to those issues.
- Discuss the application of the rules to the facts presented in the questions.
- State a conclusion as to the proper resolution of the issues.
The legal rules must be memorized. This is what is known as black letter law, and it is readily available to you from sources previously discussed. Creating a course outline from your class notes, briefs, commercial course outlines, and an occasional reference to hornbooks will give you a good grasp of the black letter law. You need to know the black letter law and be able to state it clearly and correctly in your answer in order to pass a final examination. Additionally, knowing the black letter law enables you to identify pertinent legal issues.
Discussing the application of the black letter law to the facts presented by the examination question is fairly straightforward and should flow naturally (but not mechanically) from the statement of the legal rule. For example, a torts examination answer discussing negligence issues arising in the context of an automobile accident might read in part as follows:
Plaintiffs Comparative Negligence Regarding the Auto Accident
An important issue is whether plaintiff's own conduct will legally bar him from recovery in whole or in part. The doctrine of comparative negligence operates to reduce a Plaintiff's recovery in the proportion to the degree to which Plaintiffs own negligence contributes to his injuries. Additionally, in some jurisdictions if the negligence attributable to a Plaintiff contributed more than fifty percent to his own injuries, Plaintiff will be barred from recovering anything. Plaintiffs conduct will be held negligent if it fell below the standard of reasonable care-what a reasonably prudent person would have done in the same circumstances.
Here, Plaintiff was intoxicated and exceeding the posted speed limit by thirty-five miles per hour at the time his vehicle collided with Defendant s truck stalled on the highway. Plaintiffs conduct thus fell below the standard of reasonable care in two respects-in driving while intoxicated and in substantially exceeding the speed limit. Plaintiffs negligent conduct was a but-for cause of the accident because had he not been intoxicated and speeding, he probably could have reacted in time to avoid the accident. Plaintiff's conduct was also a proximate, or legal, cause of the accident, since it was very near in time and place to the accident, and it was reasonably foreseeable that speeding while intoxicated would hamper one's ability to safely negotiate unexpected obstacles, which frequently appear in the road, such as stalled vehicles. For these reasons, even if Defendant were also negligent to some degree in failing to anticipate the mechanical problem with his truck, Plaintiff's conduct was overwhelmingly responsible (more than fifty percent) for causing the accident. Therefore, Plaintiff probably would be barred from recovering anything for his injuries from Defendant, or in any event his recovery would be substantially reduced.
The conclusion usually is the least important part of an essay answer. While in some code- or rule-based courses, only one conclusion can properly be drawn under the rules, the majority of essay questions provide plenty of room to argue both sides of an issue. In fact, professors usually present 'gray area" issues on exams that could go either way. They are looking for analysis and argument rather than a single correct answer. Therefore, your conclusion will be far less important than how you arrived at it.
While the IRAC method works fine for most law school essay exams, this is not always the case. In some classes, particularly those dealing with constitutional law, your professor may write an exam that raises issues that are not covered by any existing legal principles or black letter law. When faced with such a test, you should state the legal principles that come closest to addressing the issues on the exam. You also should discuss which (if any) of these principles should govern the matter at hand. You may, for example, want to reason by analogy that an established principle governs the hypothetical, or that public policy precludes its application. Further, your analysis should include a discussion of whether the rationale behind the rule or principle in question would be served if it is applied to the given facts. You could also consider proposing an entirely new principle of law to fit the specific facts on the exam. Such a principle should be based on logic, equity, public policy, and common sense.
No matter how you go about answering an exam question, use complete sentences. Avoid fragments or terse, mechanical expositions of the issues, rules, and applications. Remember that professors will be judging you against your classmates based on writing ability as well as substantive knowledge-both are very important. Note that the preceding sample answer makes good use of headings and underlining to organize and emphasize its points in a logical and clear manner. Your law professor will appreciate your use of such techniques provided they are not overdone.