Tackling the most important topics of law school, Part 4a: IRAC, legal writing, and laying the foundations for your argument

August 22, 2013

Law School 101a(Editor’s note: Over the next ten weeks, we’ll be covering some of the most prominent legal concepts taught in law school to help students faced with these topics, whether for the first time or as part of a review, better comprehend them.)

So far in this series, we’ve covered substantive legal topics like the rule against perpetuities and negligence.

While understanding topics such as these are vital for success in law school, understanding of another legal topic – one that is non-substantive – is, in many ways, even more important: legal writing.

The topic encompasses quite a vast array of material, but the only aspect of legal writing that I will be covering is “IRAC.”

In case you haven’t encountered the acronym (or a similar one) yet, “IRAC” stands for Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion.

It is essentially a blueprint for writing any legal essay, and the best part about learning it is that it is also useful in writing any legal argument while actually practicing as an attorney after graduation.

Of course, if you use IRAC in professional legal writing (or in any law school course that requires the writing of memoranda), you’ll likely need to add an “F” for “Facts” at the beginning.

Facts

Although constructing the facts in your legal writing is an art all on its own, here are some quick tips:

  • Recitation of facts is as simple as regurgitation thereof.  Your facts are telling a story – a story that should do its best to win the reader over to your side (while avoiding being overtly argumentative)
  • There is little to gain from omitting facts detrimental to your argument.  If you leave them unaddressed, it gives your opposition an easy opportunity for an effective rebuttal.  Instead, include these facts in a way that mitigates their importance (e.g. next to beneficial facts that act as mitigating factors).
  • Likewise, you will want to include facts beneficial to your argument in a manner that draws the most attention to it.

If you are simply writing an essay in response to a law school exam question that has the facts laid out for you already, you clearly don’t need to add in your facts section.  A facts section is central to any legal argumentative writings – whether in law school or in the actual practice of law.

Getting to the truly specified parts of IRAC, we turn to “issue.”

Issue

Simply put, the “issue” is teeing up a question of law to be answered by the rest of your essay.  However, “issues” are not to be phrased as open-ended questions; they are, instead, yes and no questions.

The easiest way to produce the requisite “yes/no” form is to begin a statement of the issue with “whether.”  I know that it isn’t grammatically correct to do so, but that typically doesn’t matter as much when you are stating the issue in a memorandum of law as a header or as part of a numbered list.

For law school essays, however, the grammatically correct way to state the issue would be:

The issue is whether…

Here’s an example using last week’s topic:

The issue is whether a valid contract was formed between offeror and offeree.

The resolution to that issue will be (or, at least should be) a simple yes or no.

If you happen to be writing a legal argument, your issue should be phrased in such a way that strongly hints that that the answer should be “yes” or “no.”

For example:

Did the pilot of the jet airliner owe a duty to its passengers to safely operate the aircraft?

Although we don’t know the exact details surrounding this issue, the issue was phrased narrowly to elicit the reader to immediately respond, “of course!”

Here’s another example (one from the petition for a writ of certiorari in Holllingsworth v. Perry):

Whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

That issue statement may be a clear “yes” to many individuals, but to its intended audience on the Supreme Court, many of the justices would have quickly responded, “no” because of the radical change that an answer otherwise may have presented.

Rather than being phrased narrowly, this issue was stated in far broader terms than it could have been because the authors clearly wanted to frighten the majority of justices on the Supreme Court away from answering “yes.”

Nevertheless, the issue was still stated accurately; and naturally, you don’t want to twist the facts so much that your issue is stated inaccurately and you lose credibility.

But in both law school and the practice of law, if you skip right from the issue to the “yes” or the “no,” you will fail.

Lawyers (and law students) are always expected to show their work – and that’s what the “R” and the “A” of IRAC are for.

We’ll be covering the rest of “IRAC” in the next post, coming shortly!