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A former literature student's guide to legal analysis

A former literature student's guide to legal analysis

The Rookie Lawyer


Reading time: seven minutes

My first round of Postgraduate Diploma in Law exams are right around the corner – and will entail a series of timed essays and one chunky piece of coursework. In the process of preparing for these exams, I've been focusing on my exam technique. One of my exam criteria is, to no one's surprise, critical analysis: and the higher up you go on the mark scheme, the more demanding the descriptors get (bouncing from ‘sufficient’ levels of analysis to ‘excellent’ and, finally, ‘outstanding’).

Coming from an English Literature background, I thought writing analytical essays would come easily and naturally to me – after all, it's what I spent the last three years of my life doing. But, as my mock exams have showcased, the distinction between legal analysis and literary analysis is far more stark than I had originally assumed. To remedy this, I've decided to go back to the basics – and, in this article, I'll be bringing you with me.


Every writing process must begin with research. I like to think of it as a funnelling process – during the researching process, you find whatever you can that's relevant, and then sand it down into an essay plan.

As an English student, the essays I wrote were mostly based around one primary source – a novel for instance – which I’d then analyse using my own readings and some secondary sources to embellish them.

In law, however, there are a multitude of primary sources – statutes, case law, and constitutional elements – that must take centre stage in your essay. Start by unpacking the question or issue you've been given, identifying all the necessary components, and making sure your research is relevant to the issues at hand. From what I’ve understood, primary sources (case law and statute) are valued over secondary sources (academic and judicial opinions and articles) – but that doesn't mean you should exclude the latter. A good essay includes a combination of both, and a good writer uses both sources to propel their own independent analysis and opinion to the fore.

But what does legal analysis even look like? And how can you tell if you're doing it right?


IRAC Approach

If you're a law student, you've definitely heard of the IRAC approach before. It's a method of structuring not only your individual paragraphs but also your essay as a whole – by identifying the relevant issues, laying out the relevant rules and legal principles, applying the facts to the law, and then concluding the potential outcome of the case. To bolster this structure, I've added a few elements of my own:

  • Issue: Beyond only stating the relevant issue in one sentence, you can provide a more in-depth explanation of the issue in its context. The aim of this section is to prepare the reader for the legal analysis to follow, so it won't hurt to include more detail. Then again, as a former English student, I have to remind myself not to get too carried away with detail – the aim in law is always conciseness and clarity, so don't overload the reader with information if you think it’ll hurt your argument. State the contextual facts that prompt the relevant legal issues, and then provide an overview of the analysis to follow.
  • Rule: This is where your legal knowledge and understanding of primary sources can be demonstrated. In this section, you state and explain the relevant statutory elements and case law relevant to the issues at hand. I like to think that there are two extra ‘R’s in this section –revision and research – because that’s where most of the knowledge in this section is coming from. An examiner or reader is likely looking at this section to glean an understanding of how well you know the law: both from what you've been taught in class and your own independent research.
  • A final note: always be cautious of conflicts of law. An awareness of these points of conflict – and an understanding of how to navigate them – is what differentiates the stronger essays from the weaker ones. Even if something contradicts your argument, it's worth including it to get a sense of the bigger picture. The fact that the bigger picture is often fraught with uncertainty and complexity will certainly not be news to any seasoned lawyer.
  • Application: This is where most of the marks are hidden because it’s in the application section that legal analysis skills come to the fore. In this section, you apply the facts of the case to the rules you've already outlined. The intention here is to show how the rules relate to the facts – which is where you can bring in the details of case law (the facts of individual cases and whether or not they apply to the one you're considering), and some secondary material (including academic and judicial opinions). A note for my fellow conversion course students who, like me, come from a more creative background: avoid the urge to embellish or be decorative with your structure – lawyers like the answers first, so start with the solution and explain your reasoning concisely and clearly. Present all of the application clearly and avoid making any assumptions of either facts or law.
  • Conclusion: This is where you state the most likely outcome of the case at hand and tie up your argument concisely.


To demonstrate that you have a sound understanding of the issue at hand in your legal essay, it's important to include context – both on the facts of the case and, occasionally, on legal principles. This’ll bolster your application of the facts to the law because you've now demonstrated a deep understanding of both.


This may go without saying, but the crux of a legal essay – as with any other essay – is argumentation. You should present your argument clearly and convincingly – but to do that, you must understand the question you’re answering and the evidence you're putting forth.

In your research and planning process, make sure you know how to explain the concepts, cases and statutes you're referencing. In your writing process, make sure you incorporate different perspectives on these issues – not only from secondary sources, but also your own personal interpretations. Something I learned from my undergraduate degree may be relevant here: my tutor always told me that the best way to use secondary sources isn't to use them as a shield to hide behind, letting them speak for me, but instead to reference them and include my own critiques of their opinions - in his words: "give them a kick on the way down".


Finally – and overarchingly – a good essay is nothing without a good structure to support it. On my conversion course, we've been encouraged to use subheadings to better separate out the different sections of an essay. Paragraphing is another useful suggestion – make sure, however, that your paragraphs are concise and not too long (something I certainly need to work on!).

Be pedantic. Every word counts – and has an important, distinct meaning in a legal context – so make sure you're using the correct terminology and, where possible, trade flowery, overcomplicated terms for their simpler counterparts.

Position your strongest arguments at the outset. This is something I certainly need to practise as, during my undergraduate degree, I’d often structure essays in a linear fashion, saving the best for last. This isn’t the case in law: lawyers want to hear the best arguments and solutions first, before anything else.

To summarise, while writing legal essays is certainly not easy – it’s, at the very least, possible. And while I'm no expert, I hope the above tips will help you (and me) better understand how to improve our legal essay writing skills.