Law school is… different, and so is the approach to answering problem based questions. The IRAC method will help you structure your exams and essays, so forget everything you currently know about answering questions and take a read!
What does IRAC mean?
- Issue: identify the issue.
- Rule: state the rule/law.
- Analysis: discuss the law in respect to the facts.
- Conclusion: provide your conclusion.
Don’t be deceived – it’s harder than it looks
It looks pretty simple, right? Don’t get me wrong, the idea behind IRAC is as simple as things can get – the difficulty is in the execution.
An easy way to explain IRAC is to talk about the things that are most likely to trip you up when using it.
Don’t write an introduction
We are taught during high school and most university courses to rehash the facts or situation as part of an introduction for any answer we give.
At law school, a problem based question simply doesn’t need one. Instead, just write down the issue as a question or a statement. For example: “the issue in this situation is whether plaintiff’s title to the property is indefeasible.” That’s it – now move on to the rule section.
I remember writing a short introduction in a problem based assignment (which I thought was different to an exam, for some unknown reason) even when the lecturer told us not to! In my defence it was early on in my first year (fine – second half of my first year).
A problem that many law students face is failing to adapt to the academic environment of law school. It takes time to reverse old habits and realise that an introduction is no longer necessary.
Don’t pad your answer
Answers in law school should be concise and relevant – the IRAC method will assist, but you still need to consider everything you write down and query whether its relevant. Fluff and padding will not help your marks and will not make up for the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Save the extra words for those 7,500 and 10,000 word essays!
Being concise is particularly important in exams when you have time limits to separate students into into credit, distinction and high distinction categories. Expressed bluntly, you can’t bullshit your way through a legal question.
This is enforced by lecturers by imposing low word limits. A 3,000 word assignment might sound like a lot before you start but most people will find themselves at the end scrambling to delete words.
Word limits are also used to identify students who understand the most important concepts and reward them for it. You will always get the most marks if you:
- can identify the key issues (relevance); and
- are able to thoroughly consider the issues for each (being concise).
This might mean you need remove any discussion of minor ancillary issues, even if what you wrote is correct.
For example, a 30 mark essay capped at 1500 words might in fact have 40 marks available, depending on what your response is. This generally gives the lecturers some scope when marking papers. However, you would need to write far more than 1500 words to discuss all the issues to get all those marks, which is obviously not allowed.
Write on point and with precision and you will increase your chances to score full marks.
Don’t revisit your answer in your conclusion
Don’t rewrite your answer in your conclusion section. Your conclusion is essentially a “yes” or “no” response to the issue (eg “the plaintiff’s title to the property is not indefeasible”). Similar to the issue section, limit it to one sentence and spend your effort on the far more important analysis section – this is where all the marks lie.
Be flexible with the rule and analysis sections, and structure your answer to help the reader
The ideal question to answer is one where the various issues you need to discus and explain are entirely separate from one another and your structure is literally: issue; rule; analysis; and conclusion (perhaps repeated three or four times). You might get a few of these in an exam, but unfortunately, they are not in abundance!
Most questions, will have overlapping issues and this is where structure becomes very important. For written essays and assignments you will have time to plan this out properly. In exams, it will come down to practice, so make sure you run through as many practice exams as you can to find out the best structure for any particular question (exam topics are frequently repeated so you can figure out what will be on your exam early).
The IRAC method is not for all types of questions
You might have already picked it up, but the IRAC method works best with problem based questions. If you’ve got a “discuss the the advantages and disadvantages of indefeasibility in property law” kind of question, then first of all I feel genuinely sorry for you, and secondly, you will need to find another way to answer this question.
IRAC answer examples
It’s easier to explain this method if by looking at an example IRAC answer. The below examples are very brief and don’t go into much caselaw detail, but they should suffice for a general example.
I have chosen the first one from criminal law because this is usually taught early on in most degrees. The second is in a different post on exam scripts, and is from a key area in contract law.
The words in [square brackets] or in italics are to indicate [structure] or are just general commentary and would not be included in your answer.
Criminal law IRAC example – Murder/manslaughter
[Exam heading] Murder
[Exam heading] Issue
- Did D commit murder?
- Can prosecution charge D with murder?
[Exam heading] Law and Analysis
- [Exam heading] (a) Mens Rea
- (State the law)
- (This is the analysis) In this situation, [there is insufficient evidence of intention]
- [Exam heading] (b) Actus reus
- (State the law)
- (This is the analysis) Here, it is clear that D’s actions were voluntary, and that the act caused the death of V.
- (Still the analysis) It could be argued that [act] was actually [something else], and therefore should not be considered voluntary. This was argued in [key case], however here, [the other important factor in key case] was not present, which means that any argument from D that actus reus is not made out is unlikely.
- (I can’t remember much of crim, but usually an exam question will have a factual scenario that plays on the facts of a key case. For example, in this question there might be something in the facts which requires you to discuss how the “voluntary” act is similar or different to a voluntary act in the key case. Refer to it and make a conclusion. If the chief examiner is particularly cruel, they will blend a factual scenario from two key cases, and you will need to refer to both and make a call on what is more applicable.)
[Exam heading] Conclusion
- D unlikely to be charged with murder. While there is sufficient evidence for actus reus, there is no mens rea.
(You will now want to determine whether D can be charged with a lesser office based on a different mens rea. To make the best use of time, refer back to what you have already written in the murder section.
Just as a warning – only refer back to things in the same answer. Sometimes, different questions in an exam booklet will be marked by different people. They might not have time to skip back to a different question to find something you have written.)
[Exam heading] MANSLAUGHTER
[Exam heading] Issue
- Can D be charged with manslaughter?
[Exam heading] Law and Analysis
- [Exam heading] (a) Mens rea
- The mens rea for manslaughter is… (as I said above, it’s been a looooong time since I studied criminal law. I have no idea what elements should go here. Recklessness?? Also, surely law students learn that this is the “fault element” now?)
- In this situation… (apply facts)
- [Exam heading] (b) Actus reus
- The elements for manslaughter are the same as for murder. These have been discussed above and are present in this situation.
[Exam heading] Conclusion
- D is likely to be charged with manslaughter as fault and external elements are all present.
(Part of your job is to make life easy for the marker. That’s the great thing about IRAC – it provides an ideal structure to frame your answer around. However, when you don’t need to write much then the structure can feel very forced. If you think your answer is going to look a bit stupid, just put everything in the one paragraph, but make sure you stick to the IRAC structure. See the below paragraph for an example.)
[Alternative manslaughter IRAC section]
(Issue) As murder is unlikely to be found, an alternative charge of manslaughter should be considered. (The following is law and analysis for actus reus) The actus reas for manslaughter is identical to murder, and is therefore present, as discussed above. (Next up, law and analysis for mens rea) However, the mens rea is different. The mens rea for manslaughter is…. [state law, discuss]. (Conclusion) Therefore, it is likely/unlikely that D will be charged with manslaughter.
Contract law IRAC example – termination of contracts
In my post on exam scripts you will find an IRAC example for termination of contracts. It’s from one of my old exam scripts and is a little more detailed than the above example for criminal law.
Want some help with a practice exam question?
If you have a practice exam question that you’re working on and you would like a second set of eyes taking a look, email me a copy of the exam (or upload it using the contact form below) and I’ll see if I can work through it. (I won’t look at any current essay questions you’re working on – speak to your class mates about those.)
Cheers!If you found this helpful, please share it around!
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Advice on preparing for and writing the exam
Prior years' exams
General information. The examination in this course will be in 8-hour take-home format; you may write the exam at home, at the library, or in a classroom provided by the law school. For further details on exam logistics, see the official CLS Fall 2008 exam schedule.
The exam will be completely open-book, and will consist of two essay questions, weighted equally. One question will be a traditional issue-spotter question, and the other will be more planning- or policy-oriented. You will be limited to a maximum number of words per question.
Advice on preparing for and writing the exam.
Preparing for the exam. Remember first of all that all of you are already good at taking exams, else you would not have made it this far in your career. While there are differences between law school exams and the exams you are accustomed to taking, the similarities are more important; thus, it would probably be a bad idea to drastically change your study habits at this point. Still it is worth paying attention to the differences, in order to make your preparations most effective.
The main skill being tested on the exam is your ability to work with hypothetical legal problems --- not your ability to display or reproduce all the information you've learned over the semester. Thus one of your goals in reviewing the course material should be to find some way to organize it so that you can retrieve in timely fashion and apply it thoughtfully. Your review should include three bodies of material: (1) legal doctrine, (2) the range of facts that influence when legal doctrines are invoked and how they are applied, and (3) the various policy and planning problems we've discussed throughout the course, such as incentives, negotiation, opportunism, information exchange, risk allocation, and the like. Since your casebook and most commercial outlines are organized around (1), it will take more work on your own part to prepare (2) and (3).
Some students have asked about the best method of outlining. Subject to the above, there is none. Do what works best for you, and this may include commercial outlines or not preparing a conventional outline at all. But, keeping in mind the skills being tested, your preparation shouldn't stop at reviewing your notes and and memorizing their contents; you also will want to practice working through some problems. Thus after your reviewing is finished, you should look at and try to work though some old exam questions. Or alternatively, you can choose a case from the early part of the book that we focused on for some limited purpose, and work it through again in light of the full semester's material. In this regard, working in groups is probably more useful than working alone.
Additionally, there is no particular need to spend time memorizing cases. The cases were useful in learning legal principles and practicing your analytic skills, and you may find it useful to refer to a case as a way of making a point concisely (e.g., the rule of Hadley v. Baxendale), but this is not necessary and you can get a top grade in my class without citing a single case. (This is in contrast to the UCC, where the statutory text is controlling and you need to cite it accurately when relevant.)
Writing the exam. The reason that I use the take-home format is that it provides a better and more realistic test of what you have learned in the course. Specifically, it allows me to give you more detailed fact patterns than would be reasonable to expect you to read in an in-class setting. Since a major theme of this course is that good lawyering requires a close and detailed analysis of the facts, I want to give you a chance to display this skill on your exam. Additionally, the extra time gives you a chance to think about the problem and write a more coherent answer.
When you come to write your exam, keep foremost in mind that you are writing an essay. This essay will be shorter and more stylized than the typical term paper, but still it should have a thesis, a plan of organization, and a series of arguments that build up to a conclusion. In this regard:
- You should spend a significant amount of time organizing your answer. Do not start writing until you have mapped out how your argument will proceed.
- Be sure to read the question carefully, consider the perspective it requests you to take, and answer it as posed. If you feel the question lacks important information, you should say so, and indicate how your answer would depend on such information. Part of what you are being tested for is the ability to realize when you need to need to investigate the facts further.
- If you think the answer is clear-cut or that the analysis can only come out one way, think again. Some of the sub-issues will cut clearly in favor of one party or another, but it is unlikely that all will. You should be sure to consider possible counter-arguments, and fallback arguments in case your main argument fails.
- Prioritize your issues. There will not be enough time or space to discuss every possible argument or issue, and part of what the exam tests for is your ability to judge which issues are most important and which are less so. You are better off writing a coherent answer than trying to jam in every last point.
- Explain your logic. Do not assume that a conclusion is obvious.
- Make use of the facts you are given. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously remarked, general propositions do not decide concrete cases; and part of the point of the exam is for you to exercise and articulate your situation sense..
The quality of an exam answer is a function of its coverage of relevant issues, clarity of expression and organization, sophistication in the use of facts, explanation and justification of its conclusions, flexibility and creativity in spotting counter-arguments and alternate interpretations, and judgment in distinguishing major from minor and stronger from weaker points. To see what these elements consist of in practice, you should look at some top student answers to old exams, available below. For what it is worth, I base 75-80% of the exam raw score on a checklist system that takes account of issue coverage and factual and logical detail, and 20-25% on my overall reaction to the exam as a whole. [These two components, by the way, tend to be substantially though less than fully correlated.] In addition, when scoring an exam I give little to no credit for irrelevant material, even if it is legally accurate.
What not to do. In my experience, here are some things that are not elements of a good answer, or that detract from your writing a good answer. Most commonly, when a student underperforms on one of my exams, it is for one of these reasons.
- Excessive citation of cases. As indicated above, you do not need to cite cases at all, though you may find doing so to be a useful and concise way of making a point.
- Restating the facts, without integrating them into a legal analysis. This is just a waste of space, even if you plan on referring back to them later in your answer. Skip the recap and just refer back to the exam question.
- Lecturing on doctrine in the abstract, similarly, gets you little credit and tends to waste space and time. When discussing doctrine, you should always connect it to the fact situation in an integrated manner, as the top student answers do.
- Reproducing a prepared checklist of issues. Preparing a checklist and having it at your fingertips is a good way to remind you not to forget anything (e.g., there are always a few students who forget to address remedies, which loses them significant credit.) But you should not write your entire checklist into your answer. For instance, if the Statute of Frauds is not implicated on a particular question, do not spend time on it.
- Analysis not grounded in a legal perspective. On planning or transactional questions, I do want you to integrate legal and practical perspectives, but you shouldn't fill your answer with analysis that you could have performed before law school. You should ground your answers in a legal framework and when you discuss transactional alternatives, be sure to discuss their legal as well as their practical effects.
Finally, though you know this already, remember to keep some perspective on the role of exams in legal education. First, the exam is only a sample, taken on a given day and under variable conditions, of what you have learned and what you can do. You've spent many days on your legal studies and this is only one of them. Furthermore, this process continues well after law school; when you will have 50 to 60 years of good and useful work ahead of you as a practicing attorney. Second, exam taking is a skill like any other, people get better at it over time. You will take on the order of 30 exams while you are in law school; you get other chances after this one, and things even out. Third and most importantly, based on a semester of discussions with you, I regard everyone in the class as talented, intelligent and capable, and nothing that happens on a single day can change my view in that regard. All of you have the potential to be first-rate lawyers, and to do first-rate legal work. Don't forget why you came to law school. It wasn't to take exams, but to learn what you need to know to do the work you want to do, and in that regard you are well on your way.