Exam Preparation: Answering exam essays

(This information was taken from Saint Louis University School of Law Academic Success website)

 

IREAC is one method used to answer essay examination questions. While it is very important to understand that not every professor in your law school wants students to use IREAC on essay examination questions, a reasonable number do. However, before you make any assumptions, ask your professors if they want IREAC. You may need to make adjustments specific to their preferences; after all, they are the ones grading your examination.

However, whether your professor wants you to use IREAC or not, this method can be generally used as the starting point for examination questions. IREAC stands for: Issue, Rule, Application, Explanation (some professors may combine A and E and call it either Application or Analysis) Conclusion – is not just for writing legal memoranda.

The first part of any examination is to issue spot and tell the professor what the issue is. Sounds easy, right? Not necessarily. Many professors have a number of issues in their essay examinations. The first part of the process is to read the essay several time so that you can identify issues – note the questions at hand – and then logically order them so that the professor can follow what you are talking about. Issue spotting is hard because it is not based on rote memorization of the cases, but rather an understanding of the legal rules.

After noting what legal issues are presented, focus on the rule. Many students mistakenly write only the basic rule and go on to conclude that it applies or not. Wrong! Think of your high school algebra equations and problems. Recall that the teacher told you that even if you got the correct final answer, she would deduct points if you didn't show your work. Guess what? You need to show your analysis on these essay answers or the professor will not give you much credit for your answer. Simply knowing the correct answer will not guarantee an "A" or "B" or "C." Minimally, the professor assumes you know the law (the rules and exceptions). She further expects that you can pick out the right rules (issue spotting). What she wants to see is how you get or your progressed from the issue to the conclusion – that is, the "R," "A" and "E" of IREAC.

So what is the rule? Well, legal issues are decided by first figuring out what the rule of law is, and then applying that rule to a particular set of facts. This includes an explanation of the rule that will govern the question. You need to state the applicable rule along with explaining where the rule comes from and what it means. Remember, you have synthesized your case briefs and used the class discussion to draw out the important rules of law. Moreover, your outline not only identified the rule, it also defined terms and concepts, explained the policy reasons, pointed out the exceptions, etc. So once you have decided on the overall issues, break them down into the necessary component parts needed to get you to a conclusion regarding that issue. Sometimes this is easy – five elements for adverse possession – but many require you to think through the process of how you will arrive at an answer.

Therefore, during the examination, you will need to focus on which rule and which elements of that rule are relevant. Now let's assume you now have to explain the rule: now explain it to the professor– just like in an algebraic equation. To do so, you may need to:

  1. Describe what the courts said about the rule.
  2. Describe how courts generally applied the rule.
  3. Point out any relevant information about how the courts did not apply the rule (the limitations of that rule).
  4. Point out any relevant factors/facts the courts emphasized.
  5. Describe the policy consideration or leading commentators (e.g. Restatement) that support the rule.

You may also need to specifically cite to the source of the rules in certain courses (e.g. examination answers in Civil Procedure generally will include references to lead cases or the Rules of Civil Procedure or other statutory sections). In those instances, references to the case may be part of your discussion of the rule.


Limit discussion of the rules to what is relevant. In other words, you don't need to reinvent the wheel on topics that clearly are not relevant to the issue in the examination. For example, let's assume you have an issue regarding a promise – did A promise B that he will buy a million copies of the self-published biography of B's dog. Do you need to give a five-page discussion up front of everything you know about contracts? No - center on the issue at hand; once completed, go to the next. Therefore "rule" in IREAC is the abstract rule of law for that issue and the explanation of what it means.

Application or analysis, with explanation, is next: This involves deductive thinking – that is, the use of the general rule (which you got from synthesizing case briefs in your casebook) to decide the result in the specific set of facts asked in your examination question. Application of the rules to the facts is also where many people have problems for two reasons. First, the student's application is too conclusory (e.g. little or no explanation). Remember, it's the process (or journey) that the professor is looking for. Think of it like an algebra problem - not much credit unless you show your work. Secondly, students only discuss their selected conclusion and fail to tell the professor why the other possibilities were appropriately rejected.

Generally, the facts given to you in an essay question present a close question as to which, how and/or whether the rule will apply. Therefore, once you have decided what rules are relevant, you then need to ask yourself how this rule should be applied in this new context. Thus, your application of rule to facts means explaining your thought process in a logical way (which means that your thoughts need to be logical, which means you need to organize and synthesize your rules so they make sense). Again, you need to be specific in your answer by creating analogies or distinctions, demonstrating to the professors that under the examination facts, the rule would apply because the examination facts are analogous to the facts of the rule. On the other hand, you might conclude and explain that the examination facts are sufficiently distinct so that they were not intended to be covered under the established rule. The idea is for you to create the analogies/distinctions so that the professor understands why you are reaching those conclusions.

One organization tool that might help the students who tend to be "conclusory," is to use "because" after any conclusion you reach. To make sure you have a basis for that "because," outline your answer in three separate columns. Chart the issues in one column, note the facts that need to be discussed in relation to those rules in the next, and if needed, illustrate with cases and policy in the third column. Use abbreviations giving only enough details so you recall what's important. To make sure you have assigned all the facts to some issue reread the question. . If there are additional facts that are not assigned, ask yourself if these facts suggest another issue, can be used to further explain an issue you already noted, or are the infamous "red herring." Then use this outline as a roadmap for answering the question.

Just remember – if the analysis (application and explanation) was in your head, but not on your paper – you will not get those points. So answer the exam question with specificity.
This leads to the conclusion. Don't forget to consider the remedy and answer the professor's question. If she wants to know what position both sides will argue – tell her. Likewise, if she wants to know how the appellate court will rule on all the lower court's decisions, make sure you tell the professor that the appellate court will reverse or affirm each of the lower court's rulings.

Finally, there are certain considerations in using IREAC. At times, the professor gives you an essay question that deals with a rule that has many elements. You will therefore need to break the rule down and explain each element too. To best do this, you will need to do separate IREAC for each part of the rule. However, not all IREAC's are created equal – some can be cursory, while others require more information. For example, the torts professor may ask you about a dog bite case. Under the cases you read in class, you have determined that a dog owner is liable for all injuries caused by his dog unless the dog was provoked by the victim. Breaking this rule into three elements, you determine that you must first show ownership of the dog by someone other than victim. In this case, the facts stated that the defendant was the owner. Thus, your discussion of this element needs little detail, although it still needs to be mentioned. Secondly, you must show an injury. Again, under the facts, this is a given – but you still need a short discussion for that element to be met. Finally, you must show a lack of provocation by victim. The essay facts indicate that this is the area that needs full IREAC.

Therefore, think of IREAC as a strategy for answering essay questions. Use IREAC to organize your thinking during the examination and as a method to guarantee that you have covered all the required parts of legal analysis.