Tips for 1Ls: Law school exam writing and the misconception of the “essay exam”

When I was a wee young lad, I believe in middle school or high school, we learned how to write a three paragraph essay.  I am sure that most of you are used to this type of an essay.  This is where you write the introduction paragraph, the three body paragraphs, and then a conclusion.  From middle school to high school and college all of my papers followed this format.  That was until law school.

I entered law school pretty confident, borderline arrogant, because I had dominated my undergrad studies.  I graduated with honors and had pretty much aced every class in my finance and accounting program.  Those grades were averaged down because of the freshman and sophomore year turn up, but I still killed it those last two years.

I figured that I had studying down to a science and I would breeze through law school.  Then I got back my first contracts midterm and realized that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Then I got my torts midterm back and it was even worse.  I tried to write a law school “essay exam” the same way I would write a five paragraph style essay and proceeded to flunk both exams.

Over the next year I linked up with an older student and he mentored me through law school and I realized that in law school they aren’t teaching you how to do what they are grading you on.  They didn’t teach you how to analyze facts or IRAC issues, they expected you to learn it on your own.  My struggle was that I didn’t have a mom, dad or uncle that was an attorney.  Most of my classmates did.  So I found a mentor.  I decided that I didn’t want any other students to feel this way and as a result I make it a point to reach back and review essays for 1Ls BEFORE the professor gets to them and makes them feel foolish.

One common thing I see is the five paragraph style essay.  This is WRONG. In law school they will tell you what is wrong but very seldom will they tell you what is right, they expect you to figure it out.  This is me telling you how it should look.

Enter IRAC

Every rule can be broken down into elements.  Each element has its own definition.  For example, you have battery.  Battery is an act with intent to cause harmful or offensive contact and damages.  The best thing to do is to breach that down into numbered elements not just a stringed out rule. So that looks like “battery is an 1) act with 2) intent 3) harmful or offensive contact, 4) damages.

Then what you do is break each element out into its own paragraph with its own heading. After you state the element you then define the element under the rule.  So for example:


Rule: An act is a volitional movement.

Then you would have a separate paragraph that analyzes one side of the facts as they meet the rule.

After that you would have another separate paragraph that analyzes counter arguments using the same facts in order to show why the facts don’t meet the rule.

Conclusion: After that you have a conclusion as to whether there was a volitional movement or not.

After you conclude you go on to the next element and analyze that element using the same “heading/issue, rule, analysis, conclusion” strategy and repeat for each element and then each broad rule.

FYI: The conclusion doesn’t count for many points but it is necessary.  The big points are in the arguments you pull out of your brain that connect that fact to the rule (I always tried to find three facts to argue for and against).  For example, “here, when the defendant pointed the gun and pulled the trigger this was an act because he made a volitional movement to both raise the gun and squeeze the trigger which was not made by any involuntary impulse”.  The facts said he shot him, you said he raised and squeezed which is the extra grey that wasn’t stated but that you can infer.

Show me the money

The money, I like to refer to points as money, on law school exams is in the grey. Find the grey and put some words to it.  It is hard work and its not as plain as the facts or law but that is where the money is.

A lot of times in law school you want to stick close to the shore because exams are high stakes (you only get a final and sometimes a midterm).  Sticking to the shore looks like stating the law and the facts and concluding because you don’t want to say anything wrong.  This will get you kicked out.  In law school the base line is the shore.  You have to state the law and the facts just to walk in the door.  The grade comes with explaining the grey in the facts, this is in your head, you picked the facts for a reason now explain why you picked the facts.

Most people who give me drafts of their paper do exactly what I did.  The call of  the question was “was there a contract formed”. I then wrote all the rules for contract formation in the first paragraph and analyzed the entire contract in the body then concluded.  That is wrong wrong wrong. Instead, you break down the offer, then the acceptance then the consideration, in turn, with definition and with arguments for and against the element.

Hopefully this helps you catch what you are doing BEFORE midterms or at the very least before finals.  If you have any questions or would like me to look at an essay or outline email me at I would love to help.

Be great,

Charles “Todd Millionaire” Oglesby


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