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Law research and writing skills: Writing legal essays

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How to write a good law essay

Advice on writing and study skills is provided by the Student Academic Success division; if you need further advice you can book a consultation with a Language and Learning Adviser.

An essay is a common type of assessment in a law degree. This page offers tips and resources to help you plan and write law essays. On the left hand column you will find a helpful infographic and Law Study Hacks video on Essay Writing. You may also like to see our pages on approaching law assignments and research skills.   

There are a number of strategies that may help you in starting, structuring and presenting a law essay. Click the headings below for our practical tips.

Starting your answer

The first step to a successful law essay is understanding the question. One of the most effective ways of breaking down the question is to identify the direction, content, and scope or limiting words.

For example, look at the following essay question:

Critically analyse the extent to which the tort of negligence and the tort of battery protect a patient's right to make an autonomous decision when consenting to medical treatment.”

Direction Words: Critically analyse

Content Words: tort of negligence; tort of battery; consenting to medical treatment; patient’s right (autonomous decision)

Scope/Limiting Words: the extent to which, protect

 
  • Direction words tell us what we need to do.
    • In this case, we need to critically analyse an area of law.
  • The content words tell us which area/s of law we need to focus on.
    • Here, we need to research the torts of negligence and battery and the issues of consent in medical treatments and patients’ rights.
  • Finally, scope or limiting words constrain our research so that we only focus on what the examiner wants to assess.
    • Here, we should critically analyse how well (the extent to which) the aforementioned torts do or do not protect patients’ rights in the context of medical consent.

You may also find it useful to look at the rubric to help you interpret your examiner’s expectations. Once you have a clear understanding of what the question is assessing, we suggest you use our Approaching your Assignment worksheet to help create your thesis statement.

Take a look at the Direction words used in assignment instructions and make sure you understand their meaning.

 

Structuring your answer

A key element of successful law essays is the structure. A good structure will enable you to communicate your ideas fluently and efficiently. This is an important and highly valued skill not only in law school, but in practice as well.

We offer more advice on structuring your essay in our Approaching Your Assignment worksheet. Remember too you need to go beyond your set texts and do more research to ensure you take both sides into account. Review our Research Skills Guide for more guidance.

In general, your essay requires an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. Generally, you should have one idea per paragraph. This may mean shorter paragraphs than what you would ordinarily write in high school or other faculties. Concision is key in law. Therefore, we recommend a short paragraph which efficiently addresses an issue over a long and winding exploration of many different issues.

Remember to use subheadings to provide a structure to your writing. It is a good idea to come up with your subheadings before you start writing so that you have a structure to follow. The subheadings should act as a series of subtopics which reflect the arguments needed to substantiate your thesis statement.

Below we have an overview of the working components of good law essays. Examiners expect you to use all of these in your writing. The samples come from Julie Cassidy, ‘Hollow Avowals of Human Rights Protection: Time for an Australian Federal Bill of Rights?’ (2008) 13 Deakin Law Review 131.

NB: This is an illustrative example only. It is not concise enough for an undergraduate research essay and you would be expected to remove phrases like “In the course of, it is suggested that, in regard to.” See our editing worksheet for tips.

Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is a sentence which summarises your argument. It is usually found in your introduction and restated in your conclusion.

Your introduction usually opens with a generalising statement concerning the area of law followed by the current consensus concerning the issue at hand.

Your thesis statement follows the consensus. After your thesis statement, you need to use signposting (see below) to articulate how you will make your argument.

“[...] It will be seen, however, that the courts have generally taken a constrictive approach to these implied limitations and that the very existence of some of these implied constitutional rights is in doubt. These implied protections certainly do not provide an effective source of human rights protection. In the course of this constitutional analysis, it is suggested that an alternative source of rights is needed - a federal bill of rights. In the context of each of the above constitutional protections reform suggestions are made [...] Finally, the article concludes by placing this analysis in its broader context in regard to whether Australia should adopt a federal bill of rights.

Julie Cassidy, ‘Hollow Avowals of Human Rights Protection: Time for an Australian Federal Bill of Rights?’ (2008) 13 Deakin Law Review 138.

Analytical writing

Descriptive and analytical writing both have their place in law essays. It is impossible to discuss the law without first describing what the law is. However, description should take up a very small portion of your essay.

You get few marks for knowing what the law is compared to demonstrating critical analysis of the law. An example of critical legal analysis is using your knowledge of the law and of secondary sources like commentaries and research articles to make your own determination of the law’s efficacy and validity.

Opponents of a bill of rights state that we have sufficient protection from arbitrary government interventions in our personal affairs and thus a bill of rights is unnecessary. [...] However, empirical evidence indicates that the traditional reliance on common law and responsible government as the ultimate guardians of human rights is no longer sufficient.

Julie Cassidy, ‘Hollow Avowals of Human Rights Protection: Time for an Australian Federal Bill of Rights?’ (2008) 13 Deakin Law Review 132-3.

NB: Cassidy describes the opposition to a bill of rights then critiques why such a position is unsatisfactory. Her critique is an example of analytical writing, but analytical writing is not always synonymous with criticism. It is applying your knowledge to form your own interpretation, not restating facts.

Signposting

Examiners frequently complain that students do not use signposting in their essays. Essays without signposting are often muddled and difficult to read. They may contain good ideas, but they are tangled or buried in long paragraphs.

Signposting comes in three types.

The first type uses phrases or words to flag the main argument and its sub arguments. This is usually done in the introduction and restated in the conclusion.

The second type of signposting is words or phrases which set up contrasts or similarities. For example, additionally, consequently, however, also, in contrast. These help the reader make connections between your ideas.

The final type of signposting is those words which indicate direction. For example, firstly, secondly, thirdly, next, finally, and so on.

Quick Tip: it may be tempting to write “I want to call attention to” or “It is important to see that” in order to construct your argument. However, you need to use your evidence and contrastive words to set up your argument. Leading with asserting the importance of something without explaining why will earn you very few marks.

“Protection for human rights might be expected from various legal sources in Australia, including the common law, specific domestic legislation, international law, and State and federal constitutional law. Whilst this article is primarily concerned with constitutional law protection, this analysis is part of a broader debate and the article begins with a brief discussion of each of these sources. [...] The article then turns to constitutional law. The constitutions of the Australian states generally contain no human rights guarantees. Moreover, the guarantees provided by the Commonwealth Constitution are not only limited, but have generally been read down by the judiciary, leaving them ineffective. This article re-examines four federal constitutional ‘protections’ that particularly demonstrate this lack of efficiency.”

Julie Cassidy, ‘Hollow Avowals of Human Rights Protection: Time for an Australian Federal Bill of Rights?’ (2008) 13 Deakin Law Review 137.

Topic Sentences and Linking Sentences

Topic sentences are a critical tool in research essays. Each paragraph should begin with a sentence that operates as a mini thesis statement exclusively for that paragraph. It should tell the examiner exactly what the paragraph is about.

Ideally, it should be short (no more than 2-3 lines, like all sentences) and contain only one idea. The rest of the paragraph then should only relate to this one idea.

The final sentence of a paragraph is the linking sentence. This linking sentence connects the current paragraph to the next using signposting to alert the reader to what will be discussed next.

Common law protections are quite limited and generally are not in the form of express statements of rights. They rather involve protective presumptions used in statutory interpretation or assumptions of liberties in areas where such liberties are not prohibited by law. Obviously, these presumptions utilised in statutory interpretation are rebuttable and may be overridden by clear legislation. Furthermore, in limited cases the common law recognises substantive rights, for example, the right to a fair trial. However even these ‘rights’ are subject to legislative abrogation.

 

Presenting your ideas

In order to do well, you must also present your essay so that it reflects academic standards. This includes correct citation practices, subheadings, Plain English, and grammar and spelling.

Examiners highly value closely edited and proofed work. We have developed an editing worksheet to take you step-by-step through the editing process. First-year students commonly rely too much on passive constructions and embellished language. Good lawyers write in clear and concise English that is easily understood.

Correct Citation

Your essay must adhere to the AGLC4 rules, including appropriate pinpoint footnotes and bibliography.

We have prepared a comprehensive guide to AGLC4 on our library guide.

Subheadings

Law essays use subheadings frequently, but judiciously. This may be different to what you are used to.

Subheadings also help provide a structure. See the previous section for more advice.

In accordance with AGLC 4, the first word of your heading must be capitalised.

Plain English

Examiners do not want to see the full extent of your vocabulary. They prefer to see complex arguments rendered in simple language.

This, surprisingly, is not easy. We tend to think through writing. That is, our ideas come to us as we are writing. This leaves a lot of writing which is repetitive, vague, or contradictory as our ideas evolve.

Use the editing worksheet to learn which words you can easily swap out to improve readability and strategies to avoid long-winded constructions.

Grammar and Spelling

Do not leave your assignment to the last minute. Not only will this create undue stress, but you will not have adequate time to proofread your assignment.

When we work intensively on a piece of writing, we need a period of time away, or distance, in order to re-read our work objectively. Give yourself 2-3 days before the due date so you can print your text and edit it carefully to remove any typos or grammatical errors.

Services like Grammarly may help to pick up errors that Microsoft Word miss.


Take a look at the materials on Research and Writing for Assignments on the Library's Research and Learning Online site. Find out how to understand the assignment, apply critical thinking, and write effectively.

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Legal essay strategies