Essays JD Students Legal Writing MLM Students

Legal Essays – Understanding Your Task

This resource is taken from the Guide to Academic Success, available at

Legal Essays – Understanding Your Task*

The words in the question that instruct you about the required task/s are called ‘directives’ – explain, analyse, evaluate, compare and so on. If present, be sure to notice these words and frame your essay accordingly. If not present, you will need to determine what the question is implicitly directing you to do (see examples below).¨

Directive Definition
Analyse Identify and investigate the components of a topic. You should also consider the way the components interrelate to produce certain outcomes or effects.
Argue Try to persuade the reader to accept your point of view or interpretation by presenting supporting reasons and evidence.
Compare and contrast Identify two or more views about the same topic and examine the similarities and differences.
Critique Give your judgment or reasoned opinion on the topic. Show its strengths and limitations. You don’t have to ‘attack’ the proposition in the question: rather, you need to identify how something could be improved.
Define Provide the meaning of a term or establish the boundaries of a concept or topic. For example, it is important to carefully define legal terms which may be open to variable interpretation.
Describe Give an account of the different aspects of a topic, process or concept.
Discuss Consider a topic from various points of view. You should describe and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments before drawing your own conclusions.
Evaluate Pass judgement on the worth of something. Such judgement should be extensively supported by pertinent evidence.
Explain Make plain or clear.
Illustrate Use examples, comparisons, diagrams etc to explain or demonstrate a point.
Outline Briefly identify and review the most important aspects of a topic or the main points of an argument.

Note in particular:

  • Some directives require expository work. For example, describe, outline, explain, detail.
  • Some directives require analytical work. For example, assess, evaluate, critically analyse, discuss.

Law essay questions are commonly framed to engage you in both types of task – exposition and analysis. This is the case whether directives are used explicitly or not.

See also

General Tips for Legal Research*

  • Understand and appreciate the context for the issues and concerns that you will consider in your assignment. Your preliminary research will help you decide where to focus your analytical efforts.
  • Gather and draw on a variety of primary and secondary sources. You should go beyond (but of course refer to) the relevant required readings. There is no set number of sources for any one assessment task. Use as many as you feel is sufficient to support your claims.
  • Adopt a questioning, evaluative approach when you research.
  • Read your sources with a particular question or issue in mind, ideally after having already started to plan your paper. You can then refine your main thesis and the parameters of your paper as you continue to read.
  • Research in ‘bursts’: you don’t need to know everything before you start your first draft. If you move back and forth between researching, reading and writing, this will help you to identify gaps in your understanding and direct you to further sources to improve the quality of your paper.
  • Carefully record your sources of legal authority, quotes, ideas and arguments. Take meticulous notes on your research and your sources as you find and read them.
  • Give some thought to how you might best structure your material
  • For each source, take notes of the full citation, and try to:
    • Summarise – what is said? (in the case or article, etc.)
    • Critically assess – do you agree with the author’s analysis?
    • Apply – how might you use the source to answer the essay question?
Common Mistakes How to Avoid Them
Essay uses inappropriate tone and formatting. Examine models of the type of writing you are aiming to produce.
The set question is not answered or part of the question is neglected. Analyse the question with care and understand your task.
State your ‘best answer’ to the question in both the introduction and conclusion.
There is insufficient citation of appropriate legal authority. Record sources of legal authorities, quotes, ideas and arguments meticulously.
Essay structure and argument are weak (or non-existent). Give thought to how you might best structure (organise) your material. Write multiple drafts.
Too much background material or description is included. Consider the audience you are writing for and the purpose of the document.
Little or no legal and critical analysis evident. Adopt a questioning, evaluative approach when reading and researching.
Points are not substantiated – that is, supported by evidence, reasons and/or authorities. Plan a research strategy to ensure that you have the most current legal sources and that your research basis is comprehensive.



Be very careful to avoid plagiarism. Whenever you draw on another person’s intellectual or creative work this must be acknowledged. ‘Work’ in an academic context includes analysis, opinions, interpretations, research findings, diagrams, images and written expression (choice of words).

Unintentional plagiarism occurs most often when students:

  • Fail to make sufficiently detailed notes while collecting material for an assignment
  • Fail to rewrite material sufficiently when paraphrasing
  • Fail to acknowledge the source of the ideas of paraphrased material.

Note that you must always reference the source of the ideas, even when you paraphrase the material in your own words.

* From the Guide to Academic Success, available at

¨ See also

* From the Guide to Academic Success