FROM A FORMER LAW LECTURER
To Help You Survive Law School
Every October I get plenty of requests from law students asking this very basic question: How do I write a good law essay? If this question has been on your mind for a while now, keep reading because in this post I will talk you through the legal essay writing process step-by-step, including gathering background information, finding the right research papers and journal articles, creating an outline, including legal analysis and personal opinion in your essay and actually answering the question asked.
Step 1: Set clear deadlines and stick to them
The first step of the process of writing a good law essay is to create an outline of the amount of time you will require to write your essay and stick to your plan. One of the big mistakes made by students when working on their essays is that they leave everything to the last moment and then try to tackle all of the essays they have to submit at the same time. Doing that will just add to your stress levels, so try to avoid it.
The best way to approach law essay writing is to identify how much time you have before the submission deadlines, and divide your research and writing time equally between the number of essays you have to work on. For example, if you have 3 law essays to work on in a particular academic term and you have 6 weeks before the submissions, you can dedicate 2 weeks to writing each law paper.
If you’re in a hurry, you can always save yourself some time by getting your essay proofread by a professional who will point out all of the mistakes and help you to get your essay ready for submission quicker.
Step 2: Follow a good essay writing strategy
Using a proven essay writing strategy can really help you to produce good quality law papers. Rather than working in a disorganised way, you should have a very clear plan of how you will approach writing your essay from the beginning to the end. Typically, you should start by reading your lecture materials, follow up by reading the relevant textbook chapters and then a few selected journal articles on the topic.
You should then expand on the reading you have done previously by looking through selected case reports and statute sections to clarify anything you are unsure about. Before you start working on your essay, you should create an essay outline that will include the headings of your essay, the central argument (i.e. the subject matter of your essay) and a bullet-point list of what you will include in each paragraph of your essay.
If you are not sure how to create an essay plan for your specific assignment question, you can always request help from your tutor in preparing a tailored plan for your law paper.
Step 3: Understand the assignment question well
Before you start working on your essay you should make sure that you are able to understand the assignment question really well. Now, I don’t mean just understanding the topic and knowing what the question is about, but understanding the type of a question asked and knowing how to address that particular type of a question. This means that you need to identify, firstly, whether the question you are working on is an essay question or a problem question.
Problem questions are typically scenarios describing several events experienced by one or more people, in which you are asked to advise them on their legal position. Essay questions, on the other hand, are usually composed of one or two sentences that ask you to provide your opinion on a particular area of law. This distinction is something that most students easily master in their first year at law school.
If you are dealing with an essay question, then the more difficult part – which no guidebooks mention and no lecturers talk about – is finding out type of an essay question you are dealing with: general essay question, specific essay question or quotation essay question. The graph below should give you a good understanding of what each of those questions looks like.
If you are often clueless as to how to approach essay questions after reading them, it might be useful for you to study the First Class Law Essay Writing course which I created, which explains, step-by-step, how to deal with problem questions and different types of essay questions.
Step 4: Answer the question asked
The structure of your essay will depend on the type of a question asked in your assignment brief. In general your law paper should always be divided into introduction, main body and conclusion. Each of those parts should be structured a bit differently depending on whether you are dealing a problem question or different types of essay questions.
For example, the introduction to a problem question assignment should briefly restate the key facts from the scenario, state the legal issues mentioned (i.e. provide the legal background) and outline the headings of the essay. While the introduction to an essay question assignment should include a bit of background about the topic, a statement of the central argument and an outline of the essay structure. Each of those elements will be a bit different depending on whether you are dealing with a general, specific or quotation essay question.
The same goes for a conclusion. The conclusion to a problem question assignment will briefly restate the final legal advice given to the parties described in the scenario, whereas the conclusion to an essay question assignment will restate the central argument and list one or two key arguments supporting it.
Structuring the main body of the essay is a bit more difficult. If dealing with a problem question, you can divide your discussions of different legal issues described in the scenario into separate headings. Similarly, when dealing with an essay question, you can set headings within the main body for different arguments and counter arguments made to support the central argument. Just make sure that those headings are tailored to the type of an essay question you are dealing with.
Step 5: Mention enough case law & statute sections
Because you are writing law essays, you need to make sure that you discuss the actual law in your paper, as opposed to what you think the law is. What this means is that you have to make sure that your essay includes enough statute sections and cases. A good rule of thumb is that if you are writing a law paper of 2,500 words, you should mention at least 10-15 cases.
The number of statute sections very much depends on the area of law and the topic you are writing about. You might come across assignment topics in which your only task will be to discuss one particular section of a specific statute, in which case you will be focusing on that section only throughout your essay, referring to at least 10-15 cases which interpret it.
But it might as well be that your topic will require you to compare and contrast several different statute sections. You will also come across certain areas of law, such as the EU law, where there are typically fewer cases to discuss, but where you need to discuss those few cases in much more detail. However, in the vast majority of law essays the rule of 10-15 cases per each 2,500 words will work just fine.
Step 6: Include references to journal articles
It might be tempting to skip reading journal articles on the topic of your essay. But all good law essays include at least some references to journal articles. In general, every essay should include some discussions of academic opinion (i.e. references to the opinions presented in law journals) along with counter arguments made by the author.
Typically, a law essay should contain references to between 5 and 10 journal articles, depending on its word count. But if you are dealing with a particularly challenging essay topic and are struggling to understand the journal articles discussing it, focus on reading 2 to 3 articles only and understanding them well enough to be able to mention them in your essay.
Related article: What are Law Journal Articles and How to Find and Reference Them
Step 7: Write in the legal academic writing style
The legal academic writing style is the official style used by academics in journal articles, and it is also the style which law students should aspire to use in good law essays. It is a way of writing about cases, statutes and journal articles which is very specific to the legal profession in the UK. It involves using different types of sentence structures to support your arguments which often used by law academics as well as mentioning the right keywords.
A good way to learn how to use the legal academic writing style is by reading several legal journal articles and spotting similar sentence structures used by the authors in introduction, conclusion and the main body. The writing style might vary a bit depending on the area of law of the article, but there are certain sentence structures which can be applied regardless of the area of law. Those are the structures you should be trying to spot.
The keywords used by the legal academic writing style, can either be more general and relating to the basic terminology used in all legal subjects (e.g. "case", "statute" etc.) or more specific ones, used in individual areas of law only (e.g. "parliamentary sovereignty" or "lifting the corporate veil").
The crucial thing to remember when applying the legal academic writing style in your essays is to make sure that the keywords and phrases which you use throughout your law paper are precise and correct. For example, you should make sure that when you are referring to a specific place within an Act of Parliament, you call that place a "statute section" as opposed to a "place within the statute".
Note: for more guidance on the legal essay writing style check out the First Class Law Essay Writing Course.
Step 8: Make footnotes and bibliography OSCOLA compliant
The OSCOLA referencing style is the key style used by UK law schools when creating footnotes and bibliographies. It is used in all UK-published legal journal articles which you will come across and it is also a necessary component of all good law essays.
The OSCOLA is effectively a guidebook illustrating how to mention different primary and secondary sources in the footnotes and bibliography of your law paper. It explains exactly in what order you should place the names of the parties in a case (e.g. Donoghue v Stevenson) and the case citation (e.g.  UKHL 100), and how you should format the name of the textbook's author, its date of publishing, the name of the publisher and the title.
If you want to produce a high quality essay, you should pay attention to little details included in the OSCOLA guide. This includes where to put the commas and the full stops in your references, and whether the title of a textbook or a journal article should be put in italics or in quotation marks. Attempting to use the OSCOLA referencing style for the first time can be quite confusing, but the good news is that once you learn how to do it properly you will find it very easy.
The OSCOLA referencing guide includes detailed guidelines on how to apply the style to your essays. But if you will find yourself lost in all the rules, you can always check out the shorter and more to-the-point guidance on the most relevant aspects of the OSCOLA style which I have included in the First Class Law Essay Writing Course.