Essays Exam Preparation Legal Writing

Writing Essays in Law Exams

Writing an essay under exam conditions is a significant challenge for many students. While the expectations differ from research essays in some respects, they are not as different as you might think. For example, while you are clearly not required to conduct research, you are expected to engage in critical analysis that responds to the set question. This will require a good understanding of the law. Below are some tips for approaching exam essays, both before and during exams.

Preparation

Essay Question Notes

You should ideally have a separate section in your notes for responding to essay questions. This is because hypothetical problems are typically more rule-focused, while essays will invariably require a critical response to a set question. For example, an extensive discussion of the impacts of the Corporations Act on environmental organisations would probably not be very useful in responding to a hypothetical, but could form the basis of an excellent essay.

So where do you find these arguments? There are a few possible sources:

  • Set readings. Often you will be given a dissenting or minority judgment, wherein a judge critiques the reasoning of the other judges. These kinds of sources are highly valuable for spotting controversies, as well as forming the basis of a critical analysis of the law. You will also typically be assigned a number of articles or book extracts – these are also excellent sources of critiques on the law.
  • Class discussions. A lot of students tend to tune out during class discussions, however this is generally not advisable. Lecturers will intentionally initiate class discussions around areas that they believe are important, or interesting. They will typically provide a critique or analysis that may change your perspective on the case. It is also quite common for lecturers to subtly initiate discussions that will be useful in the exam.
  • Your own readings. As you read through cases, you should be noting any thoughts that you have about the reasoning. Do you agree or disagree? Which judgment(s) do you prefer? Why? Use these to develop a critical opinion on the cases.

Your essay question notes should generally be organised according to significant topics, unlike your hypothetical notes, which will be organised according to rules.

The process of preparing hypothetical notes will also be of some use in writing responses to exam essay questions, insofar as your hypo notes will direct you to useful cases or legislative provisions relating to certain topics.

Practice Questions

It is a good idea to write at least one practice essay under exam conditions. This provides two benefits. First, it is an excellent way to practice your critical analysis and essay writing skills. Second, essay questions often overlap with essay questions from previous years, and it is much easier to write a response to a question if you have already critically considered some of your key arguments. It might be a good idea to also look through several past exam essay questions to see if you can spot common themes.

Reading Time

So, you’ve arrived at the exam, sat at your desk, and now it is time to prepare your essay response. You are allowed to write on your question sheet and any scrap paper that you bring in during reading time – however, you are not allowed to write in the answer booklet. You will typically have about 5-10 minutes to prepare a response, so use the time wisely.

  1. Given the limited time that you have for planning, it is often easiest to decide on a contention as soon as you read the question. This will ensure that you begin thinking critically about how you will develop an argument.
  2. Break down the question into a few key topics that will need to be addressed. These topics will form the basis of your structure.
  3. Think about how you will structure your essay. You will generally have time to write about 2-3 paragraphs, which should address the key topics (although they don’t have to directly correspond to them). Your essay will include both descriptive and analytical components. Two basic (and quite generic) structures that you might use are:
    • Structure 1:
      • Description
      • Analysis
        • Argument 1
        • Argument 2
        • Argument 3
    • Structure 2:
      • Argument 1
        • Description
        • Analysis
      • Argument 2
        • Description
        • Analysis
      • Argument 3
        • Description
        • Analysis
  1. Once you have planned your structure, write out headings and subheadings for each section. Under each heading, write out 1 or 2 main arguments, along with any cases, articles or legislation that you can think of.

Writing Time

It is often best to avoid writing the introduction until the end of the essay, so you should leave about half a page at the beginning blank. This is because the introduction should clearly set out how your argument will unfold, and given that you have not had a lot of time to plan, it is likely that you will end up writing something quite different to what you originally intended. It is common to develop your argument as you write, so don’t panic if you come across any major hurdles midway through your essay. If you reach a stumbling block, discuss it, and then state whether it is necessarily fatal to your argument. It is possible (although generally not advisable) to alter your contention midway through your essay – this is why it is best to write the introduction at the end.

Remember that every argument should be substantiated where possible. If you can’t find a case or article that you can use to back up your point, use a case as an example or case study. Limit the number of assertions that you make.

Further Reading

The above concepts are also covered in the Guide to Academic Success in Chapter 8

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