Thursday, 8 November 2018

Law Essay 101

Law Essay 101: the basics of how to write a law essay

If you’re new to studying law, you will find yourself writing essays right from the start of the course. The reading will already be daunting, and if you don’t understand how law is different from other subjects at university, you might be feeling some fear at this point. But don’t worry, take a deep breath and work at your essay in a systematic way. I hope this blog post will help. 

Look carefully at your essay question. Make sure you understand it before you start reading, notetaking and researching. 

Don’t ever do any reading without a clear purpose. WHY are you reading whichever text is in front of you? What are you looking for? Always take notes when reading. If you read something without taking notes intending to come back to the reading to take notes later, you might find you run out of time. 

Think about what you consider the answer to the question is likely to be. This will help you with your introduction. If you find writing the introduction difficult, you can always do this last. Or do your best right now and revise it later. 

Your introduction should introduce the area of law briefly, define the question and comment briefly on what you will be discussing and concluding. Some people say that you set out your “thesis” – in other words, the argument you will be making – YOUR answer to the question. This helps the reader and the marker know what to expect from your work.

The body of the essay will have to deal with a number of issues and arguments. Where you can, try to make these “flow” so that connected ideas are put next to each other. Although expect there to be some issues which aren’t going to be part of that flow – that’s fine. You are aiming to be thorough, so don’t leave out important issues just because you think the flow of your essay is being interrupted. 

You need to consider what the competing views and competing arguments are. You cannot be one sided. You will need to write about arguments and counter-arguments. Give argument and counter argument separate paragraphs. 

When you are thinking about arguments and counter arguments – try to identify what the debates are and who is initiating them – for example, differing judge’s opinions, different legal academics/commentators/writers with conflicting views, competing interests, political debates, law commission reviews of the law, campaign and pressure groups. In criminal law there is a clash between people who represent defendants (those who are accused of crimes who should be treated as innocent until proven guilty) and those who represent victims of crimes. 

You may need to show the context of the legal issue; how the law in the area developed and changed (which can be linked to historical events, changes of attitudes, social reform, protest and campaigning); whether there are policy considerations at work. Public policy considerations can be moral, practical or political – you need to describe them and evaluate them – whilst considering their influence on the law. 

Generally, don’t write about different themes or topics in the same paragraph, it makes your written work confusing to read and understand. It can also cause you to lose your thread, as you try to grapple with two ideas at the same time. 

Remember that you need to “prove” your arguments with the “evidence” – your readings from case law, statute, and legal commentators. You can’t just say what you think without justifying it. 

When you write about cases, remember that it is the principle of law in the case which is most important. The reasons for the decision (the rule of law on which the decision is based) is the most important thing – it is called the Ratio Decidendi. The Obiter Dicta (a judge's expression of opinion uttered in court or in a written judgement, but not essential to the decision and therefore not legally binding as a precedent) are a good source of counter arguments in a law essay, but because they aren’t legally binding precedents, are not as weighty. Dissenting judgments are also good sources of counter arguments. Whilst the facts can be interesting and partly relevant, you don’t say too much about the facts – the principles of law are key.

Try to be persuasive in your writing. You should try and write formally. No contractions, don’t write sentences that begin “I think”. 

Bring everything together in your conclusion. Make sure the conclusion is consistent with the introduction. 

Don't forget to proofread before you hand in. Don't rely solely on the spell checker. I wrote an essay about recklessness once (part of criminal law). There is a famous case called Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Constabulary v Shimmen (1986) 84 Cr App R 7 where someone tries to show off their Kung Fu skills. He thinks he can demonstrate a flying kick, stopping short before disaster (hitting a shop front). I wrote about him smashing a plate glass “widow” because the spell check couldn’t tell the difference between a window and widow; it doesn’t know or understand context, all it does is look for correctly spelled words in the dictionary!

The most important way in which you can avoid getting in trouble with plagiarism is to ensure anything which is taken from a source you have read is put in quotation marks. This means that while you are making your notes for your essay, you are making sure you keep the details of what your source is. Whilst you are making your notes for your essay, you might want to use a different font or colour for your own ideas, to keep them separate.

Here is a definition of plagiarism:

As you can see, taking notes where it is no longer clear what comes from your reading and what comes from your own ideas can fall into plagiarism. That's why starting with good notes for your essay is important.

When you are reading, you will need to note down certain information.

For cases:

The full case name

The citation

The name of the judge

If using quotes – the paragraph number of the judgement

For statute:

The full name of the statute and the year

The section number

The wording of the provision

For books:

The name of the author(s)/organisation

Full title

Year published

Edition, if relevant

Name of the publisher

For electronic materials, the URL (website address) for the webpage or DOI (Digital Object Identifier) and the date it was accessed

The system used in law for referencing is called OSCOLA. It means that you use reference numbers in superscript with footnotes for your sources. You will need to learn how to insert references using your word processing software. 


For how you write the references, depending on your source, here is a quick guide to OSCOLA referencing:

Good luck with your law essays!

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