Exploring Dissimilarities between a Problem Question and Law Essay


According to Holland and Webb, ‘law is a system of rules laid down by a body or person with the power and authority to make law. It is also a system of rules grounded on fundamental principles of morality.’[i] While essay questions are mostly used to assess student learning of areas of law, the key characteristics of an effective law essay are sometimes confused with those of the research problem. However, the two are fundamentally different. This report discusses the different approaches used for writing a legal essay and a problem question in a bid to compare them (Holland and Webb).

Qualities of an effective law essay

A typical structure of an essay should depend on five paragraphs, which should feature an introduction, a body with three comprehensive paragraphs, and lastly a conclusion section. The introductory section is the claim, while the body part consists of an evaluation of law, while the conclusion part consists of the outcome. The introductory section is supposed to introduction the subject of discussion and the background of a claim or thesis statement. However, while it is intended to set the stage by providing some background data, it should be brief, and one does not need to spend a lot of time in this section, as much of the data should be integrated into the three subsequent paragraphs in the body section. In fact, insignificant information should be omitted and what is left should be important (Strong 118-120).[ii]

The body of a law essay should account for a greater portion of the word count. It mainly serves to demonstrate an understanding of the area or law and provide arguments that support or dispute a line of argument. A conclusion that provides a decisive answer to the research question should be provided at this point. The conclusion made has to be in agreement with the findings developed from a sequence of arguments contained in the essay’s body. In this section, new arguments or materials should not be introduced in this section.

Skills/Techniques needed for Answering an Essay Question

The authorities should be appropriately provided to validate the arguments in the essay. A significant prerequisite for answering legal essay questions is a need to back up the arguments made with authority, which in this case is a relevant case law or a statute. Accordingly, it would be futile to merely state what the law is without describing a case law or statute that suggests its authority as a law. At any rate, the facts of the case should as well be described to determine if it does apply to the scenario in a problem question. On the other hand, on condition that a comprehensive evaluation of the facts of a case law is being undertaken to show that the case could be well-known, a succinct reference to facts could be made, rather than a lengthy outline of facts.

To effectively answer an essay question, an analysis of facts should be provided. Analysis of facts should override a mere factual description of the law. The analysis may include providing some highlights of the relevant, gaps or problems with the law and providing some likely reforms. The context of an essay question should be provided to answer an essay question effectively.[iii] While the points could first be outlined in an essay’s first sentence, opening the paper with two to three sentences that provide some background information is appropriate as this will serve to provide context for subsequent arguments.

Reference should also be made to the essay question to answer it effectively. While having background information in an essay’s introductory section is vital, it would be insignificant if there is no attempt to link it back to the essay question. Reference should be made to the question in the introduction through the use of key terms all through. Proper citations should be used, along with the statues, referenced materials, and names of the case laws. However, in some occasions, the essay may not be intended to answer a question. Still, whether the essay seeks to answer a question or not, it is crucial that the terms of inquiry be clarified for a reader in the introduction to help him or her to follow the essay’s argument.

A signpost or a roadmap of the essay should also be provided while answering an essay question. Indeed, one of the main properties of a good essay is its capacity to specify clearly in the introduction the question it seeks to address, the essay’s central purpose, in addition to how a question is answered. This alerts a reader to what he or she should expect from the subsequent paragraphs of the essay. There is also a need for specificity. For instance, being specific about what the essay seeks to achieve is vital.

An essay’s body paragraph provides the legal issue’s context and analysis. In this section, a concrete understanding of the topic under discussion should be demonstrated, along with the clear and persuasive presentation of arguments. At the same time, opposing sides to an argument should also be presented to provide a solid counterpoint to personal points or view. Additionally, they indicate that diverse contested dimensions of an issue have been discussed although a well-reasoned position has been determined. A topic sentence should be provided at the beginning of a paragraph to show what the paragraph focuses on. This can also be attained using a signposting to indicate what the paragraph dwells on. Clearly, a topic sentence serves as a significant device that shows a reader whether a paragraph’s content is indeed pertinent. Transitional paragraphs and paragraph conclusions are also significant, given that a body paragraph may be made up of different topics that need to be linked to provide a sense of continuation. This is significant, as it makes sure that an essay does not seem disjointed. For instance, is a paragraph seeks to add on a point previously tackled in a previous paragraph, then transition terms like “additionally’ or ‘moreover’ may be used. Similarly, if the paragraph encompasses an opposing argument, then terms like “on the contrary’ or “however” may be used.[iv]

The conclusion of a law essay paper has to provide answers to the questions mentioned in the introductory paragraph. While it should be free of new material, it has to be comparatively brief yet should also restate the main argument earlier proposed. This shows that the conclusion part provides the very last opportunity to provide a reminder of what the essay was intended to do and to what extent it has attained its primary purpose. Accordingly, it should revisit the question proposed, yet also provide a summary of answers to the question. Therefore, when compared to an introduction, it could be reasoned that while a conclusion encompasses what have been achieved thus far throughout the course of the paper, an introduction stipulates what is proposed to be achieved. The conclusion should be longer in a problem question than an essay.

Defining a Problem Question and its Qualities

A problem question is essentially an imagined scenario with several legal facts intended to generate legal issues worthy of exploration by referring to pertinent laws and regulations. Put differently; it is a brief case scenario regarding events that bring about a potential legal responsibility where legal counsel has to be provided to one or all parties in the case or even to review the legal positions that materialize from facts of the problem. It is intended to test for one’s capacity for factual analysis.13Essentially, the facts of the problem are provided in a way that answers to a question are not clear and need to be figured out. The facts of the case provide an indication of the issues or likely legal responsibility that has to be evaluated by referring to pertinent laws and regulations. Hence, in a problem question, a hypothetic scenario is described while one is required to establish their legal implications or provide advice to a party or parties entangled in a case.

Skills and Techniques needed for Answering a Problem Question

A significant skill needed to effectively approach a problem question is the capability to identify appropriate facts in a given case scenario. Hence, knowledge of the area of law is needed to facilitate a capacity to identify the grounds for a legal action effectively. This also implies that to identify the grounds for a legal action effectively, efficient research skills are indispensable at this level, as it enables one to locate pertinent case laws and statutory provisions easily. There is also need to have a capacity to effectively apply the law to respond to facts of the case as well as to establish the degree to which parties to a case have a legal liability. In a typical structure of a problem question, the introduction and conclusion are significant. The introduction should be restricted to indicate the issues that a question raises.[v]

In writing a conclusion, a summary of what has been said is provided, along with a highlight of whether a certain party has a strong case or not. The technique for problem-solving follows an “issues, rules, apply and conclude” (IRAC) structure (See Table 1).

Table 1. IRAC structure or problem question

The element of “issues” requires that the central legal problem is identified. Each party’s actions should be carefully planned to provide hints on the central issues as well as to assist in dealing with the relevant areas of law that should be tackled. Hence, the parties should be identified, alongside the material facts and the central legal issue. In respect to the element of rules, the relevant laws should be researched and stated. Indeed, as Finch and Fafinski comment, ‘strong essays will contain a great breadth and depth of research. You should incorporate your findings and commentary in your essay, but remember that research should be used to support, and not to displace, analyses.  Additional supporting authority like case laws and statutes should also be provided. They should, however, be distinguished and adequately stated. The element of ‘apply’   requires that the relevance to the facts of the case should be provided. Answers should be supported by referring to the principles of case laws. The answers should be well balanced by examining either side of the argument.[vi] In the conclusion section, there has to be a conclusion of each sub-issue, all discussed issues depending on conclusions arrived at for the sub-issues, and a summary of the problem question that describes the parties’ liability.

In the conclusion section of a problem question, the focus should be on how the question has been approached. It should be longer than that of an essay. However, once a conclusion is arrived at in the body section, then there would be no need to repeat them in the conclusion section. In fact, it should only summarize the findings. For instance, it could go something like this “… in conclusion, Thomas Jones has a binding contract with Missy Elliot and is bound by the contractual terms as they agreed to on 17 August 2013…”


An essay question and a problem question are fundamentally different. Unlike legal essays, problem question is not intended to carry out a critical evaluation or critique of the law. Instead, it aims to show an understanding of the law in addition to a capacity to apply the law to certain facts provided in a case scenario. A problem question is relatively brief and straightforward and outlines the areas of law in addition to the key case laws or statutes that the question has to deal with using the IRAC structure, rather than analyze them as for the case of law essay. To effectively answer an essay question, an analysis of facts should be provided. Analysis of facts should override a mere factual description of the law. The analysis may include providing some highlights of the relevant, gaps or problems with the law and providing some likely reforms.[vii]

[i] Holland J and Webb J, Learning Legal Rules: A Students’ Guide To Legal Method And Reasoning (1st edn, Oxford University Press 2016).

[ii] S. I Strong, How To Write Law Essays & Exams (1st edn, Oxford University Press 2010).

[iii] Finch E and Fafinski, S , Legal Skills (Oxford University Press , London 2017)

[iv] Reiner, C Bothell, T Sudweeks R and Wood B, Preparing Effective Essay Questions: A Self-Directed Workbook For Educators (New Forums Press, New York 2002)

[v] Ibid 118

[vi] Ibid 120


J H and J W, Learning Legal Rules: A Students’ Guide To Legal Method And Reasoning (1st edn, Oxford University Press 2016)

Strong S, How To Write Law Essays & Exams (1st edn, Oxford University Press 2010)

Finch E and Fafinski, S , Legal Skills (Oxford University Press , London 2017)

Reiner, C Bothell, T Sudweeks R and Wood B, Preparing Effective Essay Questions: A Self-Directed Workbook For Educators (New Forums Press, New York 2002)


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