Studying law isn’t just about the assignments and grades, but let’s face it, they are an important part of the law degree. Most law students are keen to get the best grades to demonstrate their abilities and help in their future career.
Here, Emma Jones, Senior Lecturer in Law and member of the Open Justice team at The Open University Law School, lists five common mistakes that law students make in their assignments which can easily be avoided.
It may sound obvious, but it is amazing how common this mistake is. Sometimes students are so keen to get on with research and writing they don’t spend long enough to understand what the question is actually asking for. Other times they focus on one aspect or idea and fail to see the bigger picture. This means it is really important to build in time to read the question carefully and analyse what it is looking for.
One approach that can be useful is to identify “process” words (such as “discuss” or “explain” or “evaluate” and also “content” words (the words or phrases identifying the key topics to be looked at). Then spend some time ensuring you know what each of these words or phrases means. Doing this ensures you don’t miss anything.
If you are given additional advice or guidance on the question and/or provided with learning outcomes, research hints or similar, it is important to read these thoroughly too. They will be there to guide you on what to include so it’s vital to make the most of them.
Usually, an assignment will require you to do at least some independent research. Skipping this step will mean your assignment is less detailed and may even feel a bit basic or shallow. A good starting point for research is your lecture and seminar notes. They will usually contain the key points on a topic, and perhaps suggest some other sources to read. If you have a set textbook for your course, you should always read the relevant sections/chapters too, as they will add depth to your writing.
When looking at other sources, it is important to remember that lots of information on the internet only offers a brief summary and is unlikely to be appropriate for legal study. Peer reviewed journal articles tend to be the most reliable source of further information. However, even then you need to check the date and that it is discussing the correct jurisdiction!
As a general rule, you also need to avoid relying too heavily on any one particular source. This can suggest to whoever is marking your work that you haven’t done wider research (or that you haven’t understood how to use it properly). Try to get a balance in the sources you draw on to show you have fully utilised them.
Often students will say they were in a hurry or they were eager to get started, so they moved straight from researching into writing their answer. Doing this means that you are having to focus on getting in the right content and on your format and writing style all at once. This makes it almost impossible to give each element your full attention.
Doing a plan provides you will a useful checklist for your answer. You can include the main topics, key points and arguments and relevant examples. You can also make a note of the format (for example, introduction, main body and conclusion for an essay). That means that when it comes to drafting your answer you can really focus on getting your writing as clear and appropriate as possible, to fully demonstrate your understanding.
Another bonus of making a plan is that you can apportion word count per section and/or topic. This means you can write to the word count, rather than having to edit your work down at the end. Often this can make your work flow better, whereas cut and pasting and deleting words can make your writing feel a bit disjointed.
It is common for a student to say that they understand a topic, but that they are struggling to put what they know into words. It is really important to make your writing as clear as possible to make sure you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. Using short sentences, constructing appropriate paragraphs and proof reading your work carefully can all help with that.
Being over the word count was mentioned above, but being under the word count can be just as problematic. It can mean you haven’t described something in each detail. Make sure you use the full word count to provide as much depth as possible.
Another important point is referencing. Putting in citations will show your marker that you have used appropriate sources. It will also demonstrate that you understand academic conventions. Most importantly, it will avoid any problems with plagiarism.
Often students will repeat an argument from a textbook or journal article in their work. This can be helpful and relevant, but just because it is given in an academic source doesn’t make it right. It is important to ask questions about it, for example, how reliable is the source? How strong is the argument? What evidence has been given to support it? What are the counter-arguments? Doing this type of critical thinking will enable you to include more of your own reasoned opinion in your work. If you go into the legal profession, you will spend a lot of time developing arguments, so it’s important to get the practice in during your degree.
The mistakes above are common, but they are also ones which can be easily avoided. Reading the feedback from your previous assignments carefully and preparing some form of checklist for assignments drawing on these points, and others raised by your markers, can all help you to demonstrate your abilities as fully as possible in your work.
This article was originally published in Lawyer Monthly. Click to read the original article.