Using the IRAC method in law school
Apply critical thinking to maximize your law school and bar exam scores
Why law students and lawyers alike use the IRAC method
In your law school classes, and eventually on the bar exam and as a practicing attorney, you will be presented with scenarios that are not cut and dry. It is your job to be able to decipher the rules of the law that apply and determine if the appropriate elements are present to resolve disputes.
The simple truth is merely memorizing the law is not enough to prepare you for cases, law school finals or passing the bar exam. Critical thinking is required. You have to actually learn and be able to apply the law when writing for exams.
While you definitely need to know a lot of rules to do well in law school and later in your legal career, it’s impossible to know all the rules of law. That’s why good legal reasoning and analysis (or the process of thinking like a lawyer) really come down to understanding the structure by which lawyers solve problems. This structure of problem-solving is known as the IRAC method — Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion — and it’s what your professors and bar examiners will test you on.
The IRAC method is an efficient framework for organizing your answer to a legal essay question. But here’s the catch with using it for exam success: If you don’t know the specific rule(s) to apply to solve the problem at hand, it becomes difficult to follow IRAC.
So how do you learn enough for exam success?
For most people, rote memorization without application doesn’t last long. Learning or memorizing a ton of information without structure and without context creates a problematic environment in which to recall the rules you know and be able to apply them on exam day.
What’s important is to know enough law to figure out which facts are legally significant, and which aren’t. This requires learning three things: Rules, Elements and Stories. Start with studying the rule and the elements that make up the rule. Once you have the rule and elements down, apply a story or real scenario to the rule to solidify your knowledge and understanding.
Now you’re ready to write using the IRAC method.
Know what you’re being tested on
The idea of IRAC is that you go through an exam fact pattern, spot as many issues as you can, state the rules of law, apply the law to the facts and then arrive at a conclusion. In exam situations, this translates to:
- Issue: Your ability to figure out your client’s problem (or what problem your professor is asking you to solve).
- Rule: Your knowledge of a rule(s) that might help solve your client’s problem.
- Application (of law to facts): Your ability to determine which facts are relevant to solving the problem.
- Conclusion: How you think a court would solve the problem.
The majority of points on law school exams come from understanding or recognizing the facts and where they are derived from (steps 1 and 3). Can you figure out the problem (issue) and can you solve it by figuring out the law (which facts are actually applicable to that issue). This understanding, and showing it in a very organized manner, can be the difference between an “A” answer and anything else.
Although it’s not the only way to structure an essay answer, the IRAC method is an effective tool for organizing your thinking and your writing. It helps to ensure all the bases are covered as you learn how to respond to legal issues.
Key skills to hone for your legal writing
Your goal in mastering the use of the IRAC method is to answer essay questions in a way that demonstrates your competency to practice law in the future. This means performing a concise legal analysis for each of the small problems presented in the fact pattern. Legal writing success comes down to Reading, Thinking and Writing like a lawyer.
A good rule of thumb is to allocate a third of your time to the reading and thinking part of the learning process and two-thirds of your time writing your answer.
Read with intention
Start with the call of the question (what issue needs to be solved) prior to reading through the fact pattern. This will help you begin separating relevant from irrelevant facts. As you are reading through the question, you should always be asking yourself: Why is my professor telling me this? Is this relevant fact?
While reading through the fact pattern, make note of which facts are outcome determinative and mark or highlight them. These are the facts that will help you figure out the question — so they should go into your outline.
Think about which rules apply to your facts and put them in an outline. Then, go back to the highlighted facts from your hypotheticals and add them to your outline. Your outline should be brief. Keep it to what rule you are going to use and what facts you are going to apply.
Important note: If you do not have facts to apply to every element of your rule, the rule shouldn’t be in your outline.
- Rule: Element1, Element2, Element3
Write with structure
Follow the IRAC structure when you begin writing your answer unless your professor requires otherwise. Be sure to look back at the facts you didn’t use to confirm that they aren’t part of the rule. With an organized and well-thought-out approach, you will be left with plenty of time to write because you’ll know exactly where you are going with your answer (thanks to your outline). Every time you get a new rule or identify a new issue, just remember to start a new IRAC analysis.
Master the analysis to write better exam answers
You might be thinking to yourself, this all sounds good in theory but how does this system for approaching law school finals really work in practice? As you begin to write out your exam answer, we recommend you analyze each dispute or issue raised using the IRAC method as follows.
Start by stating the question you plan to address in precise legal terms. Your answer should then cover all the main legal aspects of the issue in a neutral tone without being too general or oversimplified. Just remember to avoid using specific names of any parties involved or other proper nouns.
Next, state the applicable law or laws. If several laws could be applicable in the case, be sure that the number of rules matches the number of issues you’ve stated. Be clear and concise when defining the relevant elements of the rule and term of art.
Then, apply the rules to the facts using supporting arguments. Be sure to spell out everything and include counterarguments whenever possible. This is a good place to use an Issue T to break down the problem into its component parts and as a way to remember to discuss which facts in the fact pattern either support or prevent application of the rule. Address each fact given and the logical inference to be drawn from it.
Finally, it’s time to summarize the entirety of your findings using a clear-cut conclusion for each issue as well as the question asked. In close cases where a number of outcomes are possible, it is usually best to go with the most feasible and fair conclusion and state why it is your position. Discuss the merits of each outcome in your essay answer without considering yourself bound by the “general rule” or “majority view” (unless the question clearly calls for such). Ultimately, your conclusion should offer the expected legal ruling.
Congratulations, you’re learning to resolve disputes!
The great thing about grasping the IRAC method and the Read, Think, Write skills is that once you hone them, they will serve you well not only through the Multistate Bar Exam — no matter if the questions are multiple-choice or essay — but through your real-world practice as well. BARBRI takes those critical strategies to task in our proven, time-tested bar prep program. That’s why every single year, more students pass the bar exam with BARBRI than with all other courses. Combined.
Understand that law school finals and the bar exam are not tests of your ability to simply recite rules. Ultimately, they are given to test your ability to apply the rules to new factual situations. When you master this process, you begin to learn and recall the rules on your way to helping people resolve disputes. That’s what being a lawyer is all about.