Updated: Aug 27
By Lily Edwards
Writing essays is a fundamental part of law school, yet it feels although it is one area we are never sat down and taught how to do. Fear not, as we are here to help. We have composed a step-by-step guide on how to write a legal essay, without the stress! This guide is split into 3 main parts: planning, writing, and editing.
Step 1: Planning & Researching
You’d think physically writing the essay is the most important step, right? Well in our opinion, planning is the pivotal element. The first step is to write out your question and find out which subject areas the question covers. Create a folder with your lecture notes, textbook chapters and reading list for articles and journals so all your information is in one place as this will help when you come to writing the essay. Have a skim read through this information and highlight any information you think will be relevant to the question.
Now you’ve got to grips with the question, it’s time to start thinking about doing some planning into your answer. What will your argument be? It’s hard to think of this from the top of your head, so doing some reading is a good place to start. Begin by reading your highlighted textbook chapters and lecture notes and have a look at the references/bibliography to see if the author has referenced any articles that you could read. Using your recommended reading list is a starting point, but if you want top marks, you’ll need to find some sources of your own. One tip is to Westlaw to search for articles which are written about your question topic/relevant cases.
A key element here is keeping a record of your research. This can be time consuming, but future you will thank you for it! An example of this would be to create tables to organise information in one place. For a 2,000-word essay, you should read about 10-15 sources. If you want to be really prepared, put your references into OSCOLA format now, as this will save you time later.
Example Question: Critically analyse the law on self defence
Step 2: Writing the essay
Once you have researched your articles/books, the writing can begin. Your essay should have 3 parts: an introduction, main body, and conclusion. Your introduction and conclusion should each be roughly 10-15% of your word count, leaving you 70% for the main body.
Your introduction should be concise, with the aim introducing your main arguments. This should be a guide for the reader of the arguments you will cover, and which authors support these arguments. However, this should be achieved without expressing any opinion or analysis.
Some markers will prefer you to outline your conclusion within your introduction (e.g., this essay will conclude that the law of self-defence is too generous) whereas others prefer you not to. This is something you should check with your lecturer.
This part of the essay is your chance to structure the information you collated in your table into a cohesive argument. You should achieve this by splitting up your arguments into sections depending on the length. With a 2,000-word essay, 3-4 sections would be appropriate.
Start each section by introducing the argument, and why this argument is relevant to the question. Next is where your table will come in handy, as you can introduce your research. Why has the author made this argument? How does their opinion affect your own argument? If the author supports your argument, why is this so? Don’t be afraid of including authors who don’t agree with you, as this is an opportunity for you to back up your own argument! It sounds simple, but following the PEEL (Point, Evidence, Explain, Link) framework is a great base for the main body. Keep asking yourself, “how does this answer the question?”
Your conclusion is where you want to bring your argument together with a clear answer to the question. You should have a ‘stand-out’ opening and closing statement, and you want the reader to know exactly what your opinion is. Summarise your arguments of the main body, linking them together and explaining how it answers the main question. One crucial point is NOT to introduce any new ideas in the conclusion!
Step 3: The editing & final touches
So, you’ve finished writing, congratulations! But don’t start the celebrations just yet, as if you want top marks, you should add some final touches. One of the most useful things to do is to read your marking scheme and check your essay meets all the criteria. Use feedback from previous assignments and essays to ensure any points of improvement have been addressed so you can achieve the best possible mark. Read your essay out loud, checking all spelling and grammar as this is essential to achieve top marks. Use the OSCOLA guide to ensure your references are in the correct format, both in the footnotes and bibliography as this is another place students miss out on marks. This is where you’ll thank past you for putting your references into OSCOLA format during the planning!
Well, you did it - now the celebrations can begin… Until the next one!