A guide to hitting top marks in law to reach a first class standard.
How to break 70 and 80 in problem and essay questions.
Law schools test students' knowledge regularly through the use of problem questions. These are fictional scenarios that aim to test your ability to digest the information, identify the relevant law and apply it to the situation that the parties are in. This means that by the end of your answer, the parties should be left with legal advice on the relevant issues and where appropriate whether a particular claim would be successful / prosecution could be brought.
In order to provide the examiner with this information in your answer, there are a few tips below that will help you. Without these tips you will not be able to reach the high marks and your answer will not be worthy of a first class mark!
The key elements of a top performing answer are:
2. Use of authorities
3. Critical analysis
4. Structure and presentation
For an answer to be complete you must address ALL of the main issues and the majority of the minor issues.
Unfortunately there is no magic in this one! This means having a good overall knowledge of the module and the topics that fall within it.
The students that typically perform well on identifying issues are the candidates that use mind maps and topic cue cards to ensure that they don't miss out on the individual topic issues.
Those that access the first class category are those that can display that they have attended the lectures, used the lecture handouts & textbooks and can show to the examiner that they have engaged with the module content.
It is important that you have a good knowledge bank on the specific topic to draw from so that you can identify the legal issues.
TIPS ON PREPARING FOR COMPLETENESS
- use mind maps and cue cards for visual aids that can be used for exams or coursework.
- summarise the authorities that appear in your lecture notes / slides into a few short bullet points (see number 2 below!).
- use past papers to quickly 'plan' and answer by identifying what the issues, law and conclusions could be in bullet points.
TIPS IN THE EXAM / COURSEWORK FOR COMPLETENESS
- plan, plan, plan!! Always read the question thoroughly before planning the answer and devote time to bullet point the key issues
- chose the question that you feel that you can identify the core issues / minor issues in - this is the best rule for choosing a question
- start with the factual issues if you can't think of the area of law that they are examining. For example:
In a contract exam a factual issue might be:
John contracted to pay Molly £500 to repair her car. Molly now wants more money to complete the work.
Once you have identified this, you can rule out topics that are not the most relevant, for example offer & acceptance (we know the contract was formed), misrepresentation (there was nothing said or done that could amount to a misrepresentation), frustration and mistake (the contract is not impossible to perform).
Using this method, you should narrow the legal issue down to alteration promises and consideration (offers to pay more). Using Williams & Roffey Bros (1991) and other authorities, you should be able to address the legal issue.
2. USE OF AUTHORITIES
The way in which you integrate your authorities to support your advice in a problem question is an essential ingredient of a top performing answer. When you find yourself telling the examiner what a principle of law is, try to always support this using an authority.
Authorities do take a hierarchy, with caselaw and statute at the top and secondary sources below.
In a problem question generally case law references are the most important. If there is legislation on a particular issue, lead in with it, but cases are important to show the reader how the courts have interpreted the issues previously. This will help you to advise the parties using the approach that the courts have used before.
TIPS ON PREPARING AUTHORITIES
- focus on revising the ratio or the reasoning of the court for case law, students get bogged down in reciting facts - the examiner will know the cases, so long explanations of the facts of cases mean that you are not devoting time or word count where it matters!
- law schools discourage reading headnotes rather than full cases, but if you are stuck for time, Westlaw summaries or case headnotes may be enough to provide you with the reasoning of a case - particularly for less important cases.
- try to have a good grasp of the cases used by your university. Avoid using revision guides from other publishers that may not have a similar authority for a particular issue.
TIPS IN THE EXAM / COURSEWORK FOR AUTHORITIES
- top class answers steer away from quoting passages of judgments or sections of legislation in any real depth. To sound academic, summarise the authority in your own words but ALWAYS provide the reader with the citation or reference at the end of the summary.
- in exams, underline your authorities so that the examiner can see the key authorities that you have used and you are more likely to gain credit for them.
- try to vary how you introduce your authorities, don't always use the phrase "in the case of... the Supreme Court held that...". Try to vary your language to engage the reader with each authority and to avoid sounding robotic.
3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS
One of the most common pieces of feedback that students receive at university is a lack of critical analysis. Students often struggle to engage with authorities at a more deeper level than simply stating what the law is and applying it to the question.
The difficulty is, problem questions are NOT like essay questions. You are not expected to incorporate lots and lots of secondary sources in an answer. So how do we show critical analysis in problem question answers? Well the key is to incorporate journal article(s) or secondary source(s) where the law is uncertain.
This means that generally there is no need to mention the author directly, but put it in brackets after the point, or in a footnote depending on the requirements for your assessment.
TIPS ON PREPARING FOR CRITICAL ANALYSIS
- know where the authorities are conflicted. Have different judges taken a different view? Was there a dissenting judgment in a case that is particularly convincing? Examiners are always impressed when you can engage with the authorities more deeply like this.
- identify from past papers the areas that are commonly examined in problem questions and look at practitioners texts (on Westlaw Books or Practical Law) and try to identify where the law is uncertain.
- when revising generally, don't just take what you have been told on face value, think of the different reasons why the law may be the way it is, are there policy reasons, economic reasons or moral reasons for a particular approach? Is the law outdated? If so why and how could it be improved? These are points that may be brought in.
TIPS IN THE EXAM / COURSEWORK FOR CRITICAL ANALYSIS
- the secret here is when writing the answer if you find there could be two competing approaches for one of the parties or different avenues for legal redress, advise the reader why you have chosen one approach over the other, or why one would likely be more successful, this will lead to critical analysis.
- try not to 'overdo it' on critical analysis. It is generally best to include your analysis after you have fully advised the parties on the law and its application. Try not to lead in with critique, otherwise it will look like you are writing an essay.
- the most basic way to provide analysis is in the application of the law to your facts. Try to present an argument and convince the reader on the law. If you think in this way, your writing will automatically show critique.
4. STRUCTURE AND PRESENTATION
The most commonly adopted approach to structure in a problem question is the IRAC method:
I - Identify the relevant issue(s) raised by the problem question
R - Relevant law - state what the legal position is for those issues
A - Application - apply the law to the facts that you have been given
C - Conclude - provide your view on the issue and advise the party / parties.
It is extremely important to present your work in a way that is 'readable' - students often try to sound academic by using complex language and legalese. This approach is outdated and no longer used (even in court) by academics.
TIPS ON PREPARING FOR STRUCTURE / PRESENTATION
- prepare bullet point checklists for your topics within the module, particularly for commonly examined topics from past papers.
- know the IRAC method inside out!
- try to draft at least one practice question answer in your revision. Reflect on it and self review. Does the work sound easy to read? Have you structured the writing in a way that can be followed? Even send it to a friend or family member who is not legally trained, if they do not understand the basic argument you make, the chances are you need to change how you structure or present your work.
TIPS IN THE EXAM / COURSEWORK FOR STRUCTURE & PRESENTATION
- planning your answer is key! Never jump straight into drafting a response until you have drawn up a rough outline of the issues and how you will deal with them.
- always proof-read what you have written. This may sound basic, but you would be surprised how many students leave work with silly grammar and punctuation errors (even with autocorrect on!!).
- use the power of three - this is the most persuasive way of writing, tell the reader what you will show in the answer (intro), then tell it (main body), then tell them what you have just told them (conclusion). This will reinforce your point well and leave the reader with no doubt on your advice.
Try to bear in mind that your examiner will be reading a lot of work. Your aim is to make your answer stand out for the right reasons. Following these tips will ensure that your problem question technique is noticed and credit will be given for what you write. All of the above of course doesn't matter if you are incorrect on the law, so the foundation to all of the above is a sound knowledge of your module content and the law that you then apply to the question.
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