As a law student you’re likely to spend a fair bit of time writing answers to problem questions, so it’s best to be prepared. Below Lawyer Monthly’s latest law school & careers feature benefits from expert top tips from Emma Jones, Lecturer in Law and member of the Open Justice team at The Open University.
Problem questions can help you to develop valuable skills around identifying relevant information, applying legal principles to specific scenarios and writing advice in a clear and logical manner. Here are some top tips on how to approach this type of question.
1. Read the question carefully
OK, so this really applies to all types of assignments, but with problem questions there can be a pretty lengthy scenario for you to get to grips with. It can help to highlight or underline, but even better try making a flow chart or chronology of events, or a spider diagram detailing the involvement of each party.
2. Find a way to break down the question.
One common way to approach analysing problem questions is the IRAC method – identify the Issue, explain the Legal Rule, set out its Application and reach a Conclusion based on this. Depending on the scenario you’re given, you might need to work through this process several times, for example, once for each party involved or each potential cause of action
3. Show what you know
When it comes to explaining the legal rules that apply to a scenario, it can be tempting to quote sections of statute or parts of judgments. Although it’s great to reference legislation and cases, setting out their meaning in your own words really demonstrates your understanding. It can be tricky to get the balance between keeping the original meaning and putting it in your own way, but it does get easier with practice.
4. Reason, reason, reason!
The Application part of a problem question is key. It can be very tempting to jump from the legal rule to a conclusion, but you need to take your reader through your thought-process step-by-step. Often, there is no one “right” answer to a scenario, the key is to construct a clear and sound argument using legal authorities and explaining how they apply to the facts.
5. Get the structure and presentation right
This leads neatly onto the next point – structuring your work carefully. Your Law School may have its own rules on this, for example, whether or not to include a brief introduction and when to use headings. It is important to follow these. The general rule is to try and make your structure and writing as easy to follow as possible. Imagine you are writing for an intelligent lay person with no previous knowledge of law. In fact, you can always ask a friend or family member to take a look to see if they can follow what you’re saying.
6. Reaching a conclusion
When you are trying to write a conclusion, you may find that there are parts of the scenario that are a little ambiguous or where there is potential for different outcomes. If that is the case, it is fine to indicate that you can’t reach a final conclusion, but it is important to explain why not. On the other hand, if you can give a conclusion, you should try and do so. It’s usually fairly clear when someone has lacked the confidence to make a decision.
Problem questions can be challenging, but they are a great way of developing key skills which are needed in plenty of careers, not least for working on the legal profession. Just remember, one day you may have a real client in front of you, and be very glad you had the chance to practice first!