How to write a law school essay

Legal writing ranks among the most difficult academic tasks that you may be forced to undertake. In a law essay, you are forced to give your own independent assessment of a situation or a case with background judicial law and precedent forming the basis of your arguments.

Apart from the copious amounts of research that one needs to do, there is also the matter of structural adherence in the rigid legal discipline. Your document needs to be properly formatted and it also needs to have the right layout.

There is no getting lucky with a law school essay. You need to have a thorough understanding of the problem or essay question, critically analyse multiple sources relating to the case and apply the Law fairly and impartially across the entire document, developing both arguments and counterarguments throughout the paper that will ultimately support your analysis.

The experience of writing a law essay is in itself to prepare you for the future as a legal attorney, advocate or a judge where you will be required to assess and apply the law in its totality while sticking to the path of legal jurisprudence. Independent thinking is a trait that Law professors often look for in all their students and the ability to assess a situation broadly through current/historical lenses and narrow that down adequately to the problem at hand.

You may be frustrated at not getting the best results on your essay, or you may have little clue about how to go about it if you are a new student.

Here are a few tips to help you write that perfect Law essay:

Schedule your work

It is easy to spend too much time on just one particular task. If you have a month or a fortnight to hand in an assignment, it is easy to get complacent and procrastinate or postpone too much. Create a schedule for your work and divide the timetable to accommodate all tasks such as writing, research, editing and proofreading. Stick to the schedule and you will see better progress ultimately.

Understand the problem question

With your essay prompt, the problem may not be entirely clear at first glance. The problem may include multiple aspects of legal application or litigation. The best way to approach the question is to break it down into smaller ones all of which revolve around the same issue. How you break down the question will depend entirely on you and how far you can go with it. For example, you may be given the following question as part of your essay prompt:

“Roe vs. Wade activated the grassroots movements for both Pro-life and Pro-choice camps in the United States. Discuss”

How do you approach this essay question? You’re not required to advise a client on any legal matter, rather you are required to give your own legal assessment of the issue Roe vs. Wade, placing the case in the greater contextual and historical issue of abortion and providing an independent analysis based on past and current legal precedents.

You may break this question down into smaller portions which will also ultimately form the backbone of your own research. These may include:

  • What was the history of abortion laws in the US prior to this and what case precedencies had been set already leading up to Roe vs. Wade?
  • What is Roe vs. Wade?
  • What was the outcome of the case?
  • What subsequent judgments have come out of this precedence?
  • What is the background of the Pro-life and Pro-choice movements in relation to this case?
  • Is it correct to say that the act was a turning point in the dissemination of abortion jurisprudence and how have both sides been affected by this?

As mentioned, you can phrase the question as you see fit. Look for keywords such as describe, discuss, define or outline in the essay prompt. Check the phrasing of the essay question to make sure that there are no hidden instructions.

Do thorough research

Research sources can be distinguished as primary, secondary or tertiary. As you work on your essay, you should start by reading through your notes, class discussions and lectures because chances are your professor has already given you some direction on the assignment and it is lying right there in your notes. Legal research is the most important part of a Law career, and you should dive headfirst into this process.

Move on from your lecture notes to tertiary sources, all the way up to primary sources. Primary sources provide a first-hand account of facts and may include recording, speeches, interviews and other sources which provide a first-hand account of events.

Your research process for example in the example above would be guided by the essay questions that you had created before. For example, you could check on the history of abortion laws before Roe vs. Wade. As you do research, make sure to note down and write all the relevant references that you plan to use in your paper. Remember that these have to be relevant and they should address one or more aspects of the problem you are trying to solve.

You may be limited to primary and secondary sources only, or you may be restricted from using online citation. If the process proves difficult, visit your local or school library and talk to a curator.

Build your arguments as you create an outline

Law is not apolitical unlike other disciplines such as engineering and medicine. You need to adequately debate and represent facts logically. Therefore, in any legal essay, you need to build arguments for and against each point you make. For example, if you have decided in the above example that your thesis question will be:

“Roe vs. Wade only partially set the groundwork for the Pro-life and Pro-choice movements in the US”

You will need to build arguments for and against this hypothesis. Outline each argument and counterargument in its own paragraph and make sure to support every point that you present with legal evidence. As a rule, every argument you present should consist of at least two references to a supporting clause or legal provision.

Building your arguments requires the highest logical flow for maximum impact. If you decide to work on these chronologically, stick to this format throughout the entire document. If you base your flow on the importance of events and cases as opposed to flowing timelines, maintain consistency in your document.

Every argument should be relevant, sensitive to both current and historical facts, and should not be levelled with superfluity, ambiguity or meaningless dawdling.

Start writing the essay

With your arguments laid out and an outline taking shape, it is now time to start working on your writing. Before you begin writing, you should go through the essay prompt to ensure that you fully understand all that is required of the paper and the structural adaptations you have to make. This will save you a ton of time when it comes to final proofreading and editing.

The normal essay will have an introduction, a main body with your arguments and counterarguments and a conclusion. In the introduction, you can explore the historical context of the question and seek to give the reader a background understanding of where the issue originates. In the Roe vs. Wade case for example, there were already legal precedencies being set before this incident that culminated in the Supreme Court case. Explore the entire legal background of the problem in summary and then narrow your introduction down to the essay question which you seek to address.

The main body will contain your arguments and counterarguments. The conclusion should be a summary of facts as you have argued them. Don’t leave any room for ambiguity. Be clear as if you were writing for a layman.  Don’t introduce any new arguments in your conclusion.

Structural presentation

The now completed paper should now be checked for any inaccuracies and mistakes such as grammar, consistency, logical flow and proper citation. Legal papers are very strict on citation and you should check on the quality of your cited work. If you need to include a reference page, ensure you do so.

Make effective use of white space and draw the reader in to your work. Good students often lose a lot of marks simply because they didn’t take the time to properly proofread and edit their documents. Go through the essay prompt again and make sure that the paper you are presenting has answered every question raised and adheres to all structural requirements asked of you by your professor.

A good way to make sure that you are confident in what you have created is to go through the paper all the way from the bottom back to the top. This will help you proofread the paper without getting caught up in the logical flow of an incorrect paper.

Finally, practice makes perfect so write more essays.