The Things I Wish I’d Known about Law Essays When I was an Undergrad
I have been a student of the law for TEN WHOLE YEARS now. I write that in caps because not only am I a little bit surprised that the time has gone so fast (since when did I get so old?) but also because I am impressed by my permanent-student status. Avoiding full time employment for so many years takes dedication. How many people do you know would voluntarily write upwards of 200,000 words on legal topics for free, rather than earn big bucks in a firm?
But that’s the choice I have made. I am one of those strange people who love writing law essays. And since I started teaching a couple of years ago, I have realised that I don’t like the way a lot of other people write law essays. You tend to see the same mistakes again and again and again and it makes for quite frustrating reading.
So at the start of a new semester before marking comes around again, I thought it would be a good time to share a few hot tips that I have learnt about law essays. Here are five things I wish I’d known when I was toting my law textbooks home for the very first time…..
1. Introductions are more important than you think
Your introduction is quite possibly the most important part of your paper. Think about it: it is the first chance that you get to state your argument, to show that you understand the topic, to highlight key legal issues and developments, and to impress your marker with beautiful syntax. In essence, your introduction is your first chance to show the marker that you are a HD student.
Make sure you seize the bull by the horns and write a killer intro. Give yourself the best chance for success – re-draft your introduction when you finish your first complete draft of your essay. Make sure that it answers the question, is sufficiently specific, introduces the content of your key points, doesn’t go off on any tangents, and outlines your conclusion(s). Also consider including a brief roadmap of your argument after the main body of your introduction – something like:
‘In section I, this essay will outline the key recommendations of the […..] Report. Section II will examine the implementation of these recommendations in the current [……] Amendment Act. In section III, the effectiveness of this amending instrument will be critiqued, before possibilities for reform outlined in Section IV.’
Many academics use this type of outline in their journal articles. It conveys the impression of a strong, well-organised argument that meets the marking criteria.
2. Subheadings are not just for science reports
I was always incredibly reticent about using sub-headings as an undergrad. It just didn’t feel right. After all, law is a humanities subject! And an essay is not an essay if it has headings. Right?
I’m not sure about the philosophical validity of my previous views, but what I do know is that subheadings are a godsend when you are marking papers. It is easy to see if the student has covered the marking criteria, descriptive information is more likely to be quarantined from analysis, and the chances of the paper going around and around in circles is diminished. Indeed, it almost seems like using subheadings forces a student to have greater awareness of their content, which orders their thoughts, and, in turn, strengthens their argument. Before you hand in your next essay consider breaking it up into sections like the following
II Background to the issue/or legal developments/or legal rules
III Legal rules/or criticisms of the rules/or key arguments of commentators
IV Reform options
Remember to use subheadings that are appropriate for your question, and do not get carried away: the only thing worse than an essay with zero headings is an essay with twenty!
3. Some people spend their whole lives writing on your question topic
Law essays require you to do research (aka to do something other than open your textbook). Now while consulting Austlii, or AGIS-Plus or Halsbury’s and printing off five documents is certainly a good start, it won’t necessarily give you the depth of knowledge you will need to convince the marker that you deserve to top your course. You need to read widely and you need to read deeply. No last minute Googling is going to cut it. Aside from ticking the box on the mark-sheet for research, good quality research helps you develop perspective and figure out which author(s) and what view(s) are important to your argument. Some people spend their whole lives writing on your essay topic; to not discuss their research is practically criminal and shows up your ignorance of the field.
Identifying key authors when you are new to an area of law is quite difficult. However, a good guide to help you identify key authors is to make note of which authors or research other commentators regularly cite or discuss in their research. You can also assess the impact of an article or report you have read by locating it in a database and clicking on the ‘cited by’ function (Google Scholar also has a citations function). The more citations the article has had, the more likely the author is a leader in the field.
4. Quoting and citing commentators is not the same as having an opinion
When I was an undergrad, not surprisingly, I was a big nerd. I loved doing research and used to go to the library and borrow as many books as I could carry. However, when it came to writing my essays, my use of commentary resembled a scatter-gun approach. I never really liked going to the primary sources of law (cases are so hard to read! And so long!), so I would cite the textbooks and journals for their descriptive explanations. Sometimes I would be lazy and lift long direct quotes out of the text and footnote that, rather than go to the case or statute and put the legal tests into my own words. When it came to making an argument, I would write an incredibly insightful point (in essence, the key argument of a couple of commentators), and kind of pretend that I’d come up with it. I mean, I wouldn’t plagiarise, but I’d write about the conclusions of key authors as if they were my own, throw in some citations, and then continue on my merry way.
These two things are exactly what you shouldn’t do in your essay if you want to get a mark higher than a Credit. You need to be strategic about when and why you cite sources.
For descriptive material, the marker is looking for the fact that you can interpret legal tests and that you understand how the test’s elements relate to each other. Also, how, for example, the test differs from the traditional test, or tests in other jurisdictions. They are looking for your opinion on these matters. So, citing a commentator’s descriptive material is not a good substitute for going to the original source and interpreting it in your own words. When citing legal tests, make sure you only draw upon the case or the statute, unless the test is controversial and commentary gives guidance on how it may be interpreted in different situations.
Now when it comes to using commentary in the analytical parts of your essay, you need to engage with your sources, rather than present their conclusion as if they are your own. You engage by describing a commentator’s point of view, and then reflecting upon whether you agree or disagree with the view and why. You can draw upon other sources to support your conclusions. For example:
‘X argues that this legal test should be repealed and replaced immediately with a test based on […]. In support she argues, “[…].” While this argument appears valid in circumstances where […], her theory does not hold true in cases of […]. Y supports this conclusion where he states, “[…]” Therefore, it can be seen that […].’
5. Don’t forget the little things
I always enjoyed formatting my papers, it made me happy. However, as a marker I’ve realised that a lot of students fail to attend to the little things before handing their essays in. They might not: spell key cases correctly, unify the font type and size, double or 1.5 space their paper, note their word count, write their name or student number on the paper, mark which essay question they answered (which is very annoying if there were multiple questions the student could have chosen from and their introduction is not sufficiently specific), single space their footnotes, or use Ibid where appropriate.
These things are rarely allocated many, if any, marks in the marking criteria. Yet, HD papers are HD papers because they are professional. They are written in a professional manner and have great attention to detail. In essence, they are extremely pleasant to read and mark.
So it is important to make your paper the whole package and don’t drop the ball with perfecting its aesthetics prior to handing it in. Half an hour couldn’t be better spent.
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