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How to Write Better Law Essays
Transcript of How to Write Better Law Essays
Dr Steven Vaughan
Faculty of Laws, UCL
“The company’s constitution forms a contract between a company and its members. The contract is, however, an unusual one, limited in both its scope and permanence despite the best efforts of the Companies Act 2006 to clarify matters” Discuss.
This prezi is designed to give you some top tips to help you improve your skills when it comes to writing essays in the study of law.
To answer an essay question, you need to know what it
is asking of you. We call this process "interrogation". And
it's not difficult.
So, you open your exam paper and you see the essay question for the first time.
(a) starting writing straight away and regurgitate onto the page everything you know about the topic?
(b) SCREAM? or
(c) begin interrogation?
Clue: It's not (a) or (b)
To "interrogate" the question
Underline the key words/concepts in the question
Separate out the various issues/topics
And then make sure to cover each off in
Let's interrogate a Company Law
essay question together as practice
Here's the question. Read it and
ask yourself what the key words,
themes, concepts are. Ask yourself:
What do I need to cover off to answer
this question perfectly? It doesn't matter
if you have or haven't studied Company Law.
Ok. What would you have to write about to
answer this essay? Let's pull out the key
words, themes and concepts.
contract between a company and its members
. The contract is, however, an
limited in both its scope
despite the best efforts of the
Companies Act 2006 to clarify matters
This essay's about the "company's constitution". So I would need to talk about what the company's constitution is.
I'd also need to
talk about the contract
formed between the co
and its members by the
And in particular, I'd have to talk
about how this contract was unusual.
Specifically, I need to
comment on the scope
and permanence of this
Finally, I'd need
to comment on
what the Companies
Act did or didn't do
to clarify this bit of law.
So, having "interrogated" this question my essay
plan looks as follows
“The company’s constitution forms a contract between a company and its members. The contract is, however, an unusual one, limited in both its scope and permanence despite the best efforts of the Companies Act 2006 to clarify matters”, Discuss.
- What is the "company's constitution"?
- How the constitution forms a contract
- How this contract is unusual
- How the contract is limited in scope
- How the contract is limited in permanence
- What the Companies Act did re: clarification
You've interrogated the question and that has
led you to your essay plan. Now you can pick
up your pen and start writing. You begin with
an introduction to your essay.
Think of any great book that you have read or any great film that you have watched. The first few paragraphs or scenes are designed to grab you, to make you want more. There’s fundamentally nothing different with an introduction to a law essay (save that, if you write a bad introduction, your tutors have no choice over whether or not they carry on reading...)
5 top tips for Introductions
to Law Essays
Think of context and opening lines. Essay questions in law tend to be on one big topic, from which you are asked to discuss/analyse/critically evaluate/review (etc) one small part. While your answer will have to focus on the sub-topic, you can grab the reader’s attention by giving context to the wider topic, by showing why what you are talking about is interesting or important or significant.
Have a clear line of argument. The reader needs to know, in broad terms, what you are going to say to know whether it is worth reading on. Telling them what you will be arguing also helps them understand whether you are saying something persuasive and, at a more basic level, helps them understand what it is you are trying to say. As a colleague once said, writing a law essay is not like writing a detective novel. No one wants to wait until the last line for the big reveal, to find out “whodunit”. Instead, you need to be telling your reader, in your introduction, exactly what your conclusion is going to be.
Say what you’re saying. Give the reader an idea of how your answer will be structured. This will let them know (a) whether they want to read on and (b) what sort of grasp you have of the question. A good structure is a sign of the author’s command of the material: they show they are on top of the subject and will be taking the reader through the material in a logical order. It also makes the essay easier to understand. The reader knows what to expect when.
Engage with the question. I realise that most of the time, most of you will not care about various questions in law. You will not have sleepless nights thinking about the scope and nature of legitimate expectations or the teleological approach of the ECJ. But when it comes to writing an essay question, you have to pretend to care a little bit. You have to put aside your boredom of Criminal Law/Trusts/Land Law/[insert name here of module you do not like] and show the examiner that you are engaged with the issue. One of the ways you can do is that by having an opinion/argument. So, if the question says to you, “Recklessness in Criminal Law should always be judged by an objective standard”, have an opinion (one way or the other) on that standard. It doesn’t matter if you don’t 110% passionately and whole heartedly feel/care about that opinion, just have one. Essays are arguments, not descriptions. So, the thing to take away from this tip is: have a point and get it across in the introduction.
Remember: this is law, not theatre studies. Your introduction needs to be clear, concise, well structured and to have a point/an opinion. It shouldn’t be overly flamboyant or written like the start of an opinion piece in a tabloid newspaper. So, in response to the question, “The Contract (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999 has had a limited effect on the doctrine of privity of contract”, don’t write “The 1999 Act is a travesty and a disgrace and should be abolished forthwith”. You have to strike a balance between grabbing the attention of the reader, while still writing ‘like a lawyer’.
Having done the Introduction, you now move on to writing the main body of your essay. And, obviously, you need to cover off each of the elements identified through the interrogation of the question.
Here are some tips for when
it comes to writing the main body
You might have an hour to write your essay.
You might have 45 minutes.
Whatever the time period, make sure you keep
an eye on the clock. If you have 5 elements, 5
bits to the body of your essay (and you think
each is equally important), allocate the same
number of minutes to each bit.
Running out of time is NEVER an excuse.
This is very important, so I will say it again.
You are studying law. You are writing a law essay. So please include some law. Please include authority (statute law, case law,
academic commentary, policy documents etc) whenever you give
a proposition of law or an argument not of your own creation.
“Mellish J stated that the articles of association are simply a contract between the shareholders in respect of their rights as shareholders”
did he say this?
“The corporate constitution has been referred to as a relational contract”
By you? Your mum? Mayson?
As a quick guide, try and have
authority for every sentence
where you say something about the law.
"X is the standard of care expected of
learner drivers (CASE)". "YYY argues that
promissory estoppel should be abolished".
Students always ask "Do I need to know the full name of every case?" and "How many cases should I know per topic?"
The answers are:
(a) If you can, remember the full name (i.e. "Steven v Vaughan"), but don't burst into tears if all you can remember is "Vaughan". Your examiners are semi intelligent and will probably be able to guess "Vaughan" is "Steven v Vaughan"
(b) Know as many cases
as possible. From your lectures,
seminars/tutorials and reading, it
will be obvious what cases are KEY
and what cases are interesting to know
if you have the memory to recall them
Underline Case Names.
You won't get any marks for doing this. But it
does make your answer a bit neater. Similarly, use
HEADINGS where you can (for example, for different
sections of the main body)
What is it that you need to know from the case law you have studied?
That is, what do you need to evidence in your law essays?
For example, do you think anyone
wants to read "In this case in 1822
this happened and then this happened
and then this happened and then this
and then this and then this..."?
For each case, know the KEY facts (ie the basics),
know the ratio and some of the more interesting
dicta. Where there are multiple judgments given,
it would be useful if you knew how the different
judges differed in their judgments.
Where the case has been overruled or distinguished,
know this too. If the case is "bad law", then know
why it is "bad law". Are there any academic commentaries
on the case that have come up from your reading?
Ok, enough about cases.
Onto how you should use
I see this all the time:
“a lot of academic debate”
“Some say that...”
Who are these mysterious people?
And, what have they done to merit
you protecting their identities? Are they
in witness protection schemes perhaps?
When it comes to using academic commentaries
or critiques, please try
(a) to remember the name of the academic ("Vaughan argues...")
(b) to give them the correct sex ("Vaughan argues X. She says...")
When you read an article by
an academic, try and distill it into
a small number of key propositions,
comments or arguments.
Let's be realistic. If you have 10 articles
to read for Topic X, how many points will you
be able to get down in 45 minutes?
Know what the academic
argues. And also try and form
your own view. Can you see any
flaws in their logic? Have they
missed something? Or has the law
changed since their article?
How to do well
If you just describe the law, if you just regurgitate what you have been told in lectures and what you took from your tutorials, you will be unlikely to get more than a low 2:1 (60%). You might only get a 2:2 (50-59%).
To do well, you have to show that you can (a) evaluate the law
and (b) be critical of it. What does this mean?
In short, it means "asking questions". It means
doing more than simply "describing".
To evaluate the law, you might want to start by
exploring the similarities and differences between the cases you have read and/or between different theories and/or between the views of different academics.
For each 'thing' you are considering (case, statute, academic article, policy paper etc) what are its strengths and weaknesses? You might want to assess the worth of the 'thing' in terms of the evidence on which it is based and/or how it relates to other pertinent ideas.
For more on "critical thinking", you might want
to have a look-see at this overview by Plymouth University:
The "critical" bit of
"critical evaluation" will
take time. Once you have
"evaluated" what you're looking
at, you can start to be critical
of it. You can argue that it
doesn't make sense: that a case
was badly decided for reason X or
that an academic commentary has failed
to take account of Y.
What you are aiming for is to show the reader that (a)
you understand the ins and outs of X (the case, the article, the policy paper etc), (b) you can evaluate the worth of that case/article etc and (c) that you can be critical of the thing under study. This critical bit might see you arguing one particular viewpoint or putting forward one particular theory as the one that should be predominant.
To see critical analysis in practice, simply read any
article from a decent law journal
(MLR, JLS, LQR, CLJ etc etc).
You should be aiming to replicate the framework that
the best academics use in their article writing. You should
be trying to match the ways in which they describe,
evaluate and critique the law.
Finally, make sure you ANSWER the question. Give a conclusion to your law essay. Don't just write down everything you know on Topic X and forget to actually answer the question that has been set for you.
This is what your law essay should contain:
- Which contextualises, signposts and summarises
- Which covers off all the elements in the question
- Which is brimming over with authority
- Which is logical, well ordered and signposted
- Which is more than descriptive
- Which answers the question set
Practical Ways To Improve
1. Find a friend
2. Get Writing
Therefore, good Brutus, be prepared to hear,
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I your glass
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II
Shakespeare was right. We "know" ourselves best by reflection.
So find a friend and revise with them. Talk together about
what you are learning, get them to test you on your knowledge
and "brainstorm" ideas together. Get them to read your practice essays and give you feedback on them. This leads me neatly onto...
Your exams will normally be closed book, unseen questions in a set amount of time. So get used to this... Do practice answers using past papers - with no notes and in the same amount of time you would have in the exam. Do the practice answer and then
walk away from it. Go for a tea/coffee, get some fresh air, call
a friend and talk about The Voice.
Then come back to your answer and be critical of what you have done. Look at your notes and see what you missed. Check you
"interrogated" the question properly. Ask a friend to read it and see what they think. Do the same for them.
The best revision is ACTIVE.
That is, it's more than "Here are my notes.
I will read them. And reread them. And rereread them.
And that's it". By doing practice answers, you will
improve your writing skills (if, that is, you can be
reflective enough to see where you went wrong/where
you can improved)
Finally, Good Luck!