Law: Legal essay
Four 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:
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.
You may also find it useful to look at the rubric to help you interpret your examiner’s expectations.
2. Planning your argument
When reading a case, journal article, book chapter or online article, it can be hard to know exactly how to use the source in an essay. This is where taking good notes while reading critically is helpful. Take a look at our other resources to help you Read critically and Read difficult material.
The next step is to take notes that help you understand different arguments and issues, or information and context, and refer back to your assignment question to keep you on track.
Writing a very short summary of each source is a great way to start. For example, for each journal article you read, try to summarise the author's main points in a few lines. This will help you to articulate the meaning in your own words.
Then, expand on this summary with some key points. Be sure that when taking notes, you make a note of the source and the pinpoint reference or page number, so that you can correctly cite the source in your essay.
Think about how you will use your resources. You may use a primary or secondary resource to:
- to support your argument with evidence
- to demonstrate a range of issues and opinions (remember, it’s OK if you don’t agree with all your sources! Show where these contrasting arguments fit into your discussion)
It may be helpful to ask:
- How does this source contribute to my argument?
- Do I agree or disagree with the author’s argument?
3. 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.”
4. 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.
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.
Legal essay strategies
- Writing a Law essay mind map
Take a look at this useful mind map to see the steps involved and the questions you should ask yourself when writing a law essay.
- Melbourne Law School: Research essay guide / Legal essay checklist
- Professor Steven Vaughan (University College London): How to write better law essays (Prezi slides)
- Associate Professor Douglas Guilfoyle (University of New South Wales): Plain Legal English (YouTube playlist)
- Professor James Lee (King’s College London): #FreeLawRevision Guides (see especially Essay Technique Parts 1, 2 and 3) (YouTube playlist)
- Strategies for Essay Writing - Harvard College Writing Center
See particularly, the section on Counterargument.
- Dr Patrick Goold (City, University of London): ‘It’s a subject where words matter’: how to write the perfect law essay (The Guardian)
- 'Don't just vomit on the page': how to write a legal essay
Law lecturer Steven Vaughan (University College, London) explains why the best essays take discipline, editing, and teamwork.
How to write better law essays : tools and techniques for success in exams and assignments