A Professor's Insights About Legal Writing — Flemings Fundamentals of Law
Have you ever found yourself wondering what the difference is between an 'A' student and a 'C' student in law school? For many law school students, it seems like a great mystery that is hard to answer; after all, many students share their graded law school exam answers with one another, note the similarities, and then wonder how their grades can be so different.
Over more than 10 years as a law professor, I cannot count the number of times my students have come to me after receiving their grades and have said, "I compared my answer with hers. We both saw the same issues - how come she got an A and I got a C?"
As a first year law student, even I did not know how to answer that question. However, after a decade as a law school professor, I can now say the difference is clear. It entirely comes down to legal writing skills, particularly the ability to be analytical and apply the facts to the law.
The Rules of Engagement
In the closed universe of a timed law school exam, everybody finds themselves dealing with the same facts and the same amount of time to work with those facts. Out of those facts, certain issues arise. It is up to law students to:
Identify the relevant issues raised by the facts
Cite the relevant rules of law they have learned to those issues
- Apply the given facts to the rules in order to explain the likely outcome
It sounds simple enough, yet 10 years of grading law school exams has taught me that analysis and effective legal writing skills too often evade a great number of law students. It’s clear these students know the law, but they cannot demonstrate the ability to communicate the connection between the facts and the law in a reasoned manner.
The good news, however, is that reasoning and writing skills can be achieved with diligent practice and the proper exam approach.
Building A Bridge Between The Facts & The Law
The key factor students need to understand when it comes to analyzing facts to law is that there is a huge difference between repeating a fact and using a fact in their answer. When approaching a law exam, a 'C' student will see a fact, realize it is important, and recognize the issue triggered by the fact. In the writing phase, ‘C’ students will point out that the fact leads to a conclusion, but without explaining how the fact gets to that conclusion in an analytical fashion.
The 'A' student, on the other hand, will see the same fact, and in the writing phase will explain how it leads to the conclusion, using words like 'because' as an effective means to demonstrate proper analysis.
Put another way, 'C' students act like a parrot in repeating what they have been told. 'A' students act like an attorney in explaining what they have been told and how it relates to the rule of law in order to reach a conclusion.
Recognizing that a fact is important is only half of the battle; explaining why it is important is what gets the highest grades and makes for the best legal analysis.
Always Answer The Most Important Question
Law students should always bear in mind that a law professor is not all that different from a two-year-old, constantly asking why! It is not enough to simply answer a question - a solid law school exam answer explains how that answer is derived.
Moreover, these analytical reasoning and writing skills carry over into the practice of law as well. In order to write an effective Brief or Memorandum of Points and Authorities, authors need to explain why the judge should side with them. Merely citing the law and regurgitating the facts is always inadequate. Authors must explain how the facts apply to the law in order to lead the judge to conclude that the issue must be decided in their favor.
Now, while this skill might not come easily to most students, the good news is it certainly can be achieved with effective preparation and practice.
A key mistake many first-year law students make is dedicating the vast majority of their study time to simply learning and memorizing the black letter law itself rather than using their time to develop their analytical and writing skills.
A more effective use of time involves a division of time where students both learn the law and then practice applying it by taking the time to write out practice examinations.
Hone Your Exam Skills, With The Right Tools
In order to master the skills of exam analysis and legal writing, there are a number of law school aides that can help along the way. Perhaps the most effective law school study resources for exam analysis and legal writing are books with collections of sample law essay exams and answers, such as our essay examination writing workbook series.
Resources like these show students exactly what high-level analytical writing looks like. Such resources cover all of the first year law school subjects so students can see examples of effective legal writing for any subject matter they can expect to be tested on. Once you’ve seen examples of high-level analysis, it becomes clear what’s required to get top grades.