Answering Problem & Essay Questions [Study Tips 3/3]

law examThe final part of our study tips series. Read part one on writing good lecture notes here, and part two on seminar prep here. This post will focus on writing great answers for essays and exams.

Even if your knowledge of a legal area is amazing, it’s no use unless you have great exam technique. It’s like a boxer training his body for a fight without practising his punching technique. Exam practice is as important (if not more important) as case revision.

Problem questions

Problem questions are all about logically providing an answer to the scenario you’re presented with.

Yes it’s generic advice; but you need to make a rough plan. It doesn’t need to be massively detailed at all; a series of bullet points will do, but you need to get down all of the key points.

Your planning time is also your thinking time. Personally I found it very hard to think further about the question while I was writing. I was concentrating on the current legal point in hand. Not the question as a whole. If you miss an important detail during the planning stage then you could be setting yourself up for a poor answer. Only once you’re sure you’ve got all the key facts down, should you start writing.

When you’re actually writing you need to keep in mind that you’re arguing a certain point. So when you’re writing about a certain point of law (that you outlined in your plan) you need to set it out in a logical and persuasive way:

  1. Briefly introduce the point of law and say why it’s relevant to the question.
  2. State your argument.
  3. Provide evidence for your argument. Legislation and case law are good examples of this.
  4. Conclude and strongly link back to the problem question.

You will need to repeat this structure for every single legal element that you believe is relevant to the question. In your final conclusion (based on what you write on your number 4 conclusion) make it clear where you believe the liabilities / obligations (depending on question) lie. If you don’t have enough information, or the case isn’t clear cut then say so!

Look out for chances to show your analysis and attention to detail skills. While showing this isn’t a key priority it’s something that can can either make a very good answer nearly perfect, or at least get you one or two extra marks. Sometimes this is hard to do when you’re just looking at the key facts and concentrating about getting the main principles correct. However if you pick up on something that most people don’t then it really demonstrates your sharp legal mind to the examiner!

Here’s a very simple example of the sort of analysis I’m talking about: During a contract exam there’s a question about the validity of a contract through an advert in a newspaper. The newspaper advert said that the first acceptance of the offer received in writing would get the goods. The question mentions one of the individuals accepting the offer did so by email. Would this acceptance constitute writing? Is an email really writing? The great thing about bringing this point up is that it can be explained in one or two sentences, and doesn’t even need to reach a definitive conclusion. Just bringing it up as a point of interest, or an extra consideration, will be beneficial.

Essay questions

It’s a little harder to give advice for essay questions. With problem questions you just start applying the law, but with essay questions you really need to think philosophically about a question. Spending too much time preparing for problem questions before the exam, and not spending any time on essay questions can be a big problem. You’re going to be severely limited if you think “I’m only going to answer problem questions”. Depending on institution you may be required to answer essay questions.

Personally I think that writing a good essay is more dependant on thinking about a certain area before an exam, rather than your actual technique. It’s so beneficial to think about and form your own opinions on a certain topic before the exam. But you still need to make a detailed plan. For me the amount of thinking time was much longer than for the problem questions. Even though essay questions are usually much shorter, you should re read them several times. It’s easy to go off on your own personal rant and not actually answer the question. Not answering the question, or only partially doing so, will massively decrease you chances of getting a great mark in the exam.

When planning an essay I usually followed this structure:

  • A very clear introduction. State what you are going to argue, and if appropriate give the core details of your argument. E.g “… I believe this to be the case because of the following key reasons [reason1], [reason2], [reason3], [reason 4].
  • The body of the essay. This will be broken down into smaller sections and will make up the bulk of your argument. Each paragraph should be a premise in your argument. You should use a similar structure to the problem question above:
    1. Introduce the law / premise of argument and say how it relates to the question in hand.
    2. Go into detail about your argument and provide evidence as you go along, this evidence could be legislation, case law, or a judge / academic. Remember to create a balanced argument and look at problems with what you’re saying. E.g “It could be argued that [point 1] has the following fault with it, however I believe the following counter argument can be applied...”
    3. Conclude this part of your argument.
  • You may need to provide a mini paragraph which glue two of your previous conclusions together. It may not be immediately obvious that two of your points are very closely connected. One or two sentences can avoid confusion and make your essay much easier to read.
  • My conclusions were usually longer than they were in problem questions. I really analysed all of my conclusions for each premise to provide a strong basis for my conclusion. I found that planning the conclusion was beneficial. I (briefly) wrote down my premises with the conclusion below so I could review my argument and make sure it was as logical as possible. Here’s a simple example of what I’m talking about:
  • P1– Law A creates inconsistent judgements
  • P2 – Law A doesn’t promote fairness.
  • Conclusion – Lack of fairness and inconsistent judgements mean that law A needs substantial improvements.So as you can see, you really need to tie everything together in your conclusion. So mention all of the points you brought up in the body of your article, and for clarity state how they support your conclusion.

Hope this helps the way you approach exams. This is just the way I do things, and it worked out well. Numerous methods are valid though. The best advice I can give is just to do as many practice questions as you can. Look at lots of past exam papers, make sure you look at your university marking schemes and criteria too. Give the examiners exactly what they’re looking for.

Mark Jackson

Author: studyinglaw

Mark is the site founder, webmaster, writer and designer. He is constantly working to improve the site. Anything you want to know? Any suggestions? Want your own blog? Then get in touch!