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Applying the Facts: Maximizing Points in a Law Exam

Brad Desnoyer

Applying the Facts: Maximizing Points in a Law Exam

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Grades are in. You reviewed your exams. You talked with your professors, and they all told you the same thing: “If you had only ‘fleshed out’ your answers, you would have received a top grade.” As you now know, you failed to fully explain your analysis.

Having heard this criticism, however, how do you actually go about explaining your conclusions and earning a top grade?

Implement the "A" Step

As you have likely probably been told, IRAC – which stands for issue(s), rules, application, and conclusion – can help with these sorts of problems. However, merely knowing the IRAC mnemonic is not enough. Instead, you have to know how to implement the technique.

Unfortunately, students often struggle to implement the formula, particularly the “A” step, which requires you to apply the facts of the exam question to the legal rules presented in the “R” section. What often happens is that a student only scratches the surface of the analysis, leaving the key elements submerged beneath the surface of the essay, creating the dreaded “submarine” argument.

Because a submarine argument is largely hidden, you will receive few, if any, points for your efforts. If you are to improve your grades, you must bring these types of arguments to the surface by being explicit in your writing and analysis, since a professor cannot award points for something that is not written on the paper.

You Must Show Your Work

To maximize your points, you must use the facts rather than gloss over them or argue them without reference to the law. You might remember your high school math teacher admonishing you for not “showing your work.” In law school, it is even more imperative to show your work, since the conclusion to a law school essay is worth very few points.

An example might help. Imagine the following question, which might appear on a torts exam: “Jacob went into the bathroom, and Max pretended to lock the door behind Jacob, while yelling, ‘If you come out, you will face the consequences.’ ” This one sentence has several facts that must be analyzed and used. First, you must use the fact that Jacob voluntarily entered the bathroom. Second, you must use the fact that Max only pretended to lock the door. Third, you must use the fact that Max made an ambiguous threat.

When making your argument, you don’t focus on facts in the abstract, without any reference to the law (your “R” section). Neither do you discuss the law without referring to the actual fact pattern. Instead, you need to do both somewhat simultaneously, since law becomes relevant only when it is placed in a particular factual context.

Some students think that they’re doing what the professor asks when they say “Here, there is false imprisonment” or “Jacob was clearly confined.” Unfortunately, instead of gaining you points, these types of conclusory statements simply lead your professor to ask the same question: “Why?” Every time a professor asks “Why?” you have lost a potential point.

Counter the "Why"

The best way to counter each “why” is to use the point-maximizing word “because.” You must explicitly write, “Because Max threatened Jacob and because Max told Jacob the door was locked, it would be reasonable for Jacob to fear to disregard Max’s words and acts. However, Max will argue that his words were not definite enough to cause a reasonable person to fear to disregard them because the threat carried no concrete punishment …”

Notice this example relies on terms of art (i.e., “words and acts” and “fear to disregard”) while applying specific facts. When you finish your essay, few facts should be left on the table. If a professor puts a fact in a question, the fact is usually there for a reason. Your goal in the “A” step is to demonstrate either that (1) each element of the plaintiff’s prima facie case can be sustained by reference to the fact pattern or (2) some element of the prima facie case can be defeated because it either (a) fails to rise to the legal standard set forth in the “R” section of the essay or (b) falls victim to a defense asserted by the defendant.

Learning to overcome submarine arguments takes time, and this short discussion has mentioned only one of the various techniques that you can and should use in your law school essays. When seeking to improve your writing, it is often helpful to see detailed examples of how other students have used the IRAC technique to maximize points.

I have recently co-authored a book, “How to Write Law Exams: IRAC Perfected” (West 2016) with Professor S.I. Strong, that not only provides detailed instructions on how to excel on law school exams but that also includes numerous sample essays, written by actual students. By reading the in-depth, line-by-line critiques of those materials, you can see how to improve your own writing, thereby earning the kinds of grades you want.