Law: Legal essay

Three tips on how to write a good law essay

An essay is a common type of assessment in a law degree. This resource offers tips and resources to help you plan and write law essays. There are usually two types of law essays: the theoretical based essay and the problem-style essay.

The theoretical based essay may ask you to critically discuss a new piece of legislation or a recent case in relation to existing laws or legal principles. You may also be asked to take a side in an argument or discuss the wider societal implications of a legal outcome.

Problem-style essays require you to advise a party based on the analysis of a scenario or given problem. You will be required to identify the legal issues and apply relevant law. See more on legal problem-solving in this resource. This resource will focus on theoretical based law essays. There are a number of strategies that may help you in starting, structuring and presenting a law essay.

1. Starting your answer

The first step to a successful law essay is understanding the question. One of the most effective ways of breaking down the question is to identify the direction, content, and scope or limiting words.

For example, look at the following essay question:

Critically analyse the extent to which the tort of negligence and the tort of batteryprotect a patient's right to make an autonomous decision when consenting to medical treatment.”

Direction Words: Critically analyse.

Content Words: tort of negligence; tort of battery; consenting to medical treatment; patient’s right (autonomous decision).

Scope/Limiting Words: the extent to which, protect.

  • Direction words tell us what we need to do.
    • In this case, we need to critically analyse an area of law.
  • The content words tell us which area/s of law we need to focus on.
    • Here, we need to research the torts of negligence and battery and the issues of consent in medical treatments and patients’ rights.
  • Finally, scope or limiting words constrain our research so that we only focus on what the examiner wants to assess.
    • Here we should critically analyse how well (the extent to which) the aforementioned torts do or do not protect patients’ rights in the context of medical consent.

2. Structuring your answer

A key element of successful law essays is the structure. A good structure will enable you to communicate your ideas fluently and efficiently. This is an important and highly valued skill not only in law school, but in practice as well.

Usually, your essay requires an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. Generally, you should have one idea per paragraph. This may mean shorter paragraphs than what you would ordinarily write in high school or other faculties. Concision is key in law. Therefore, we recommend a short paragraph which efficiently addresses an issue over a long and winding exploration of many different issues.

Remember to use subheadings to provide structure to your writing. It is a good idea to come up with your subheadings before you start writing so that you have a structure to follow. The subheadings should act as a series of subtopics which reflect the arguments needed to substantiate your thesis statement.

Below we have an overview of the working components of good law essays. Examiners expect you to use all of these in your writing. The samples come from Julie Cassidy, ‘Hollow Avowals of Human Rights Protection: Time for an Australian Federal Bill of Rights?’ (2008) 13 Deakin Law Review 131.

NB: This is an illustrative example only. It is not concise enough for an undergraduate research essay and you would be expected to remove phrases like “In the course of, it is suggested that, in regard to.”


3. Presenting your ideas

In order to do well, you must also present your essay so that it reflects academic standards. This includes correct citation practices, subheadings, Plain English, and grammar and spelling.

Examiners highly value closely edited and proofed work. First-year students commonly rely too much on passive constructions and embellished language. Good lawyers write in clear and concise English that is easily understood.

Your essay must adhere to the AGLC4 rules, including appropriate pinpoint footnotes and bibliography.

A comprehensive guide to AGLC4 is provided by the Library.

Law essays use subheadings frequently, but judiciously. This may be different to what you are used to.

Subheadings also help provide a structure. See the previous section for more advice.

In accordance with AGLC 4, the first word of your heading must be capitalised.

Examiners do not want to see the full extent of your vocabulary. They prefer to see complex arguments rendered in simple language.

This, surprisingly, is not easy. We tend to think through writing. That is, our ideas come to us as we are writing. This leaves a lot of writing which is repetitive, vague, or contradictory as our ideas evolve.

Use the editing worksheet to learn which words you can easily swap out to improve readability and strategies to avoid long-winded constructions.

Do not leave your assignment to the last minute. Not only will this create undue stress, but you will not have adequate time to proofread your assignment.

When we work intensively on a piece of writing, we need a period of time away, or distance, in order to re-read our work objectively. Give yourself 2-3 days before the due date so you can print your text and edit it carefully to remove any typos or grammatical errors.

Services like Grammarly may help to pick up errors that are missed by Microsoft Word.

Further resources

Legal essay strategies

Books