Legal Theory Essays: What is a reflective essay?

By Alix Carson, EAGLE facilitator


The Legal Theory reflective essay requires a style of writing you have probably not done before. It does not require you to do hours of research, and you do not need to apply legal principles to a set of facts. Instead, reflective writing involves detailed reading of a few resources and deep contemplation about their interactions. This article aims to guide you through some common pitfalls and help you write a great essay!

How is it different from a research essay?

One of the most common mistakes is that students write their essays like a research paper. There are some key stylistic differences that must be remembered.

  1. You only want to use 2-4 sources.

Reflective writing is about depth and having too many sources prevents you from considering things at a deep enough level.

  1. Arguments and Contentions

In a research essay, you make a contention, and then you use numerous sources to back up your contention. Your argument is external from any one reading. However, in reflective writing, your contention is about the readings. You want to make an argument about how different sources interact; the readings are the centre of your contention. (I’ll explain this more later)

  1. Use of sources

In research essays, ideas from sources are generally cited and used to support your own argument without significant engagement with the source as a whole or the assumptions underlying their arguments etc. However, in reflective writing, the reading is the very centre of your discussion and argument, so each reading is engaged with in a much deeper way.

So, those are some of the main differences between research and reflective essays. But how do you actually write a reflective essay?

Things to focus on in reflective writing

There are many ways to write a reflective piece, but I’m going to lay out some ways to find and frame arguments in your essay to comply with the reflective style.

  1. Look for the points of intersection

When you are reading your sources and planning your essay try and find points in the readings where they are trying to answer the same question. Are they all discussing how law gets its authority or how to determine if laws are valid? By finding these points of intersection, it is easier to see how they differ or add to each other.

  1. Bring them into conversation with each other

Once you find those points of intersection, try and bring them into conversation with each other.

What shortcomings do they point out in each other?

If they are read together, do they form a stronger argument?

Are they coming from fundamentally different assumptions?

This is a great way to find arguments and begin developing your contention.

  1. Form a contention

Finding those points of intersection can help you see how the readings interact and can be the grounding for your contention. Your contention should be based on the interaction between the readings, not some other theory you have developed. Use the points of intersection and conversations between the readings to form your contention. You want to ground your contention in the reading and analysis of material.

The teachers say the best essays will demonstrate originality – what this looks like will vary across assignments.  For legal theory, this might be a choice of perspective or theme that allows you to do your analysis. However, that is just one suggestion.  There is room for originality in this exercise but make sure you stay focused on the readings.

  1. Depth over Breadth

Finally, focus on going into detail on each argument and reading and avoid trying to discuss too much. Reflective writing is definitely a depth over breadth exercise.

General Tips

Although reflective writing is new in many ways do not forgot the basics:

  • Answer the prompt! You can write a great paper but if you do not answer the question you will miss a lot of marks.
  • Write clearly and concisely: this can be difficult in legal theory because of the complex ideas but it makes you sound confident and like you understand what you are writing about.
  • Ensure the structure supports the argument and highlights the rigour of your analysis. Do not adopt a stream-of-consciousness structure.
  • Use headings to signpost the steps in your logic.


I hope you have found these tips helpful, and remember this is not a research paper! Also, don’t forget the essay writing clinic runs for both the semester 2 and intensive Legal Theory classes to get some one-on-one feedback before you submit!