Tips & Techniques for Civ Pro Essay Exams


What is it? As you know, it’s issue-rule-analysis-conclusion. We talked about IRAC, FIRAC, and IFRAC early in the semester.

Is IRAC the actual structure of all essay answers? Yes and no. IRAC is the heart of legal analysis. You need to make the main issue clear, give the main rule, give the analysis, and give the main conclusion. However, the actual structure of your essay will depend on the fact pattern, the call of the question, and the legal issues raised by both.

Do you mean I shouldn’t do pure IRAC? In a sense that is exactly what I am saying. For instance, imagine a simple diveristy SMJ essay question. You will have to discuss amount in controversy (AIC) and complete diversity, right? But there can be additional issues contained within the issues, right? For instance, AIC includes the text of the statute as well as the St. Paul Mercury rule. And complete diversity can have a whole bunch of issues, which might include: the law under 1332(a)(1), (2), or (3), U.S. Citizenship, foreign citizenship, lawful permanent residence status, domicile (and the various domicile tests!). In a personal jurisdiction (PJ) essay, you may have lots of things to discuss depending on the facts, such as: long-arm, traditional bases, general jurisdiction, specific jurisdiction, and more! So in reality, even the simplest essay question may include a whole bunch of legal issues and sub-issues. Thus, it doesn’t always make sense to lump all the law under a “rule” section and all the analysis in a section below that.

What might happen if I lump all rules together and write all analysis separately? In other words, if you do pure IRAC (all rules together, all analysis in separate section), it’d probably be a bad answer.

  • Such an essay answer would be hard to write, hard to organize, and would likely omit some sub-issues and sub-analyses.
  • Your paragraphs would be long, unwieldy, poorly organized, and poorly written.
  • You would probably not get a very good score.

So what do I do? You need to organize your essay in light of the facts, the call of the question, the issues, and the law. This requires recognizing essay questions that have multiple issues, or that have issues that contain sub-issues!

  • That might mean that your actual structure will include multiple IRACs.
  • That might mean that the “analysis” portion of your “analysis” (the “A” in IRAC) may contain one or more sub-IRACs.
Here’s an example.

Suppose you’re given a relatively simple fact pattern with one plaintiff and one defendant, where the call of the question is subject-matter jurisdiction (SMJ) and the only viable basis for SMJ is diversity. You should give the overall issue, overall rule, and overall conclusion. But the analysis will contain a number of sub-issues, each of which may contain additional sub-rules, sub-analyses, and sub-conclusions.

OVERALL ISSUE: Does the federal court in Florida have subject-matter jurisdiction in the suit between Peter and Deborah?

OVERALL RULE: Give main parts of diversity jurisdiction rule. Do not give every bit of law here; instead provide additional law when you get the relevant sub-issues. The two main parts of the overall rule, of course, are AIC (amount in controversy) and complete diversity.


SUB-ISSUE #1 : Does Peter’s claim exceed $75,000 exclusive of interest and costs?

SUB-RULE #1: Give rule for AIC from 1332(a) and St. Paul Mercury rule.

SUB-ANALYSIS #1: Apply the law to the facts. Counter-argue if a good counter-argument exists. Raise policy issues if appropriate.

SUB-CONCLUSION #1: State whether AIC is met. If sub-conclusion is tentative or contingent, explain why.

COMPLETE DIVERSITY (sub-issue # 2)

SUB-ISSUE #2: Are the parties completely diverse?

SUB-RULE #2: The rules you give here will depend on the facts. They might include the rule from 1332(a)(1), (2), or (3), plus additional law such as: definition of “citizen of a state,” timing of citizenship, standard(s) for domicile, treatment of lawful permanent residents, etc. Again, you do not have to lump all the law for all sub-issues here. Think about the sub-issues within the sub-issues. Yes, a sub-issue can have one or more sub-issues! Here you have to think about how you’d organize a sub-issue that has multiple parts.

SUB-ANALYSIS #2: Apply the law to the facts. Analyze the citizenship of each litigant separately. Counter-argue if good counter-arguments exist. Raise policy issues if appropriate.

SUB-CONCLUSION #2: State whether diversity is complete. If sub-conclusion is tentative or contingent, explain why.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: State whether SMJ exists. If main conclusion is tentative or contingent, explain why.


Use the tips above to organize and to write one (or more) of the SMJ questions available here. Bring me both your outline and your draft essay answer. Do the same thing for any of the PJ practice essays (Amazone #1, Amazone #2, and Best Batteries).

The sample outline above has a lot of sections! Yes, it does. There can be considerable thought that goes into even a simple SMJ fact pattern.

Will outlining and sub-headings help? Yep! As a start, always create an outline before you start to write. Then, turn your outline into subheadings. This will help you to organize your answer and to make sure you discuss all the issues and sub-issues that are reasonably raised by the facts and call of the question. Using subheadings will help you to keep your paragraphs focused and to avoid writing long yucky paragraphs.

Here are some additional drafting considerations, in no particular order.

Before the exam: create course outlines as a step towards exam preparation. One purpose of creating course outlines for each of your classes is to organize and master the material. Another purpose is to pre-organize law and legal issues so that you know how to organize those issues in your essays when you take your exams. Not every kind of law will be organized the same way. Some law consists of elements, some looks to the “totality of the circumstances,” and some law contains a list of non-exclusive factors. Other types exist. Also, some law combines one or more these approaches. In any case, any legal issue worth testing on will likely contain multiple sub-issues, as discussed above. So when you outline, figure out how you’d organize various topics. Some procedural law you read will contain an implicit order of analysis, whereas other law will not and you will have to come up with a way of organizing it. Your job as a student is to think about essay organization before you sit for an exam, and not while you are taking the exam.

During the exam:

  • Argue the facts presented. A common error with essay exam answers is failing to argue the facts provided. Sometimes relevant facts are omitted from the answer. Other times, students change the facts or add facts not contained in the fact pattern. Usually this happens when a student rushes to write and misreads the facts. Other times it is because a student wants to answer based on his or her own facts rather than the facts provided. Don’t do that! However, if after careful review of the fact pattern you still believe that additional facts are needed for your analysis, you should state what those facts would be, and how they would affect your analysis.
  • Focus on the issues raised. Do not raise irrelevant issues. Use your judgment as to the main issues that are likely to be worth more points. Minor issues are likely to be worth fewer or no points.
  • No negative issue-spotting. You get no points for “negative issue-spotting.” Here’s a handout on negative issue-spotting. Here’s another one. If the call of the question asks for discussion of personal jurisdiction, you get no points for discussing subject-matter jurisdiction. So don’t squander your valuable time.
  • Do not be conclusory. Always provide the “because.” If you state a conclusion without indicating (in that sentence or surrounding sentences) “why” or “because,” then you’re probably being conclusory. Conclusory is bad.
  • Write legibly, write grammatically, and do not misspell or misstate key terms. This speaks for itself.

Do I cite cases and statutes?

  • Case names versus the law contained in cases. Stating a case’s name without the relevant rule of law gets you no points. Instead, you must be able to state the applicable law found in relevant cases. In fact, it does not matter if you can’t state case names so long as you are able to state the relevant law (as well as identify relevant splits in the law). Thus, you may state the case name along with the rule of law. Or simply state the rule of law without the case name.
  • Statutes and rules of the FRCP. Similar considerations exist regarding citing statutes and the rules of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”). Making a conclusory statement and saying, “See section 1331(a)” is not stating the rule of law. You must state what the law is, not just its section name. Thus, if you can cite the statute and the law contained within the statute, great. If you can only remember the law contained within the statute but not its citation, that’s fine too.

Finally, some organization & time-management tips.

Don’t start writing immediately!

  • Read the instructions carefully. They’ll tell you the value of each question and give suggested times. Also, for users of blue books, write on every other page, every other line: 1) it’s cleaner and easier to read; and 2) if you miss something and have to go back to clarify or add something in, you’ve got room to work with.
  • Read all questions carefully. Read an essay question several times before outlining an answer. Read it again after outlining and before writing. Read it again after you write your answer (to see if you’ve missed anything).
  • Outline your answer before starting to write. You will feel the time pressure to write right away. Do not start to write immediately. Instead, outline your answer before you start to write, either on the exam or the inside front cover of the blue book. You should outline and make sure that you structure your outline to reflect the issues raised. If you do a good outline, you can then easily write up your answer. Further tips about outlining:
    • Draw a picture. Diagram the litigation. It will help you to spot relevant legal issues. 
    • Do a “fold” outline. What I mean is that you might try folding a piece of paper in half: on the left-hand side, put the law (rules, standards, factors, etc.). On the right-hand side—across from the applicable law—put all the relevant facts that each side will use to argue. This method of outlining might help you to organize your answer and to spot good counter-analysis to go with your analysis.

Other time-management tips. Sometimes students have difficulties finishing the all of the questions in the time provided. Address this issue by:

  • Watch the clock. Know how much time is suggested for multiple-choice questions and essays. My instructions aways state how much time I suggest for each part of the exam, and the points are weighted accordingly. Don’t spend the entire time writing a brilliant answer to one essay question and then run out of time for other essays and multiple choice questions.
  • Don’t use all your time on one question. Not squandering too much time on essay questions that are worth fewer points. For example, if one question is worth 20 points with a suggested time of 20 minutes, and another is worth 80 points with a suggested time of 80 minutes, it would be inadvisable to spend 80 minutes on the first question.
  • Be prepared and know your doctrine well. This minimizes “remembering” time and aids organization. I do provide copies of relevant provisions of the Constitution, statutes, and FRCP for you to use in the exam. But if you don’t know that law well already, then you will waste too much time reading them during the exam. Needless to say, the first time you read an FRCP rule should not be during the exam!
  • Outline before writing. This helps you capture and organize all of the issues before you start writing, so the writing flows quickly. A few minutes organizing saves a lot of time that would otherwise be spent back-tracking and head-scratching during your writing.
  • Outline. If you start to run out of time, give a quick outline of what you intend to say. Any such outline must be within the text in your essay answer and not contained elsewhere (such as in a blue book or in a separate part of your Examsoft answer). I may give partial credit.

Last revised Sept. 29, 2016 (major revision)