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I Wish I'd Known—US Rep. Joe Cunningham

Joe Cunningham

I Wish I'd Known—US Rep. Joe Cunningham

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In your first year of law school, you learn a method of legal writing known as IRAC—issue, rule, analysis, conclusion—as a framework to guide your work. Some schools have slightly different outlines, but their essence is the same.

It’s relatively straightforward. Start your essay by highlighting the legal issues at hand. Present the applicable legal rules. Apply or analyze those rules to the pertinent facts involved in the case. Conclude your answer by restating the result of your analysis.

If you want to do well, you quickly learn that analysis is the most important part of your answer. As a diligent law student, I always placed the emphasis of my work on analysis, and I thought the key to being a good lawyer was making the best, most compelling argument.

It wasn’t until after I graduated law school and started practicing in the real world that I realized the weight was placed on the wrong part of that formula. I wish I’d known in law school that what really matters is the issue because whoever frames the issue most successfully controls the argument.

What’s the Real Issue?

I once read a story about a high school journalism class. The teacher gave students a set of facts and asked them to write a headline for the story. The facts were as follows: All the teachers at their high school would be attending an all-day lecture out of state on Friday. The students turned in such headlines as: “Teachers Leave Town” and “Teachers to Attend Lecture by Notable Speaker.”

None of them were correct, the teacher told them. The headline should have stated: “School Canceled on Friday.”

The students were focused on the wrong issue.

Of course, when you’re sitting for an exam in law school and presented with a certain set of facts, it’s almost always apparent what the issue is. In the actual world, that rarely happens. When you’re dealing with real clients, there are usually several overlapping issues at play, and it takes time and effort to find out which are the most important.

Go Beyond the Argument

I’ve learned many things while practicing law and now as a member of Congress that I wish I’d known in law school. I didn’t have the experience at the time to understand that it’s not always about making the most compelling argument. Sometimes, it’s more important to investigate what the real issue is so you can solve it.

Good legislators must do more than make a persuasive argument with the facts they present.

A compelling argument is important—and there’s a reason that videos of particularly effective questioning in congressional hearings will often go viral on social media. But you can’t accurately determine the right issue to address until you understand all the facts.

The stakes are even higher in governance than in the practice of law because you can’t just focus on the aspects of the case most beneficial to one side when you’re tasked with representing the entire electorate.

I wish I’d known in law school to look past application and drill down on the facts.