Avoid Conclusory Statements in Law School Essay Exam Answers
By Dennis Tonsing
Published on September 13, 2011
Law school essay examination answers that do not supply the explanatory information detailing step-by-step how each issue can be resolved are said to be “conclusory.” That is, they recite conclusions without stating supportive analysis. Here’s an example of a conclusory statement taken from an exam answer: “Because Adam’s intent manifested the malice required for murder, he will be convicted.” The problem here is that although the statement may be true, the writer has not told the reader (professor) precisely which of Adam’s acts show he had the malice required to prove murder, what degree or variety of intent the law considers sufficient to prove malice, nor what type or variety of malice is required to obtain a murder conviction.
Here’s a better way to handle the Adam/intent issue.
The intent required to obtain a conviction for murder is malice. Malice can be proven by demonstrating that the defendant had the intent to kill. If a defendant uses a deadly weapon in a manner calculated to cause death, he manifests the intent to kill. Here, Adam’s use of a loaded gun to shoot Ben in the forehead at close range proves malice under this “deadly weapon” doctrine.
A display of the thought process leading to every conclusion is essential in a law school essay examination answer. When you enter the professional practice, judges, lawyers, and clients will be asking, “How did you reach that conclusion?” Throughout law school, your professors will expect you to respond to that latent question in every class session and on every examination. The ability to conclude is not what “thinking like a lawyer” is about-rather, you are developing the ability to persuade another that the conclusion you have reached is supportable by application of rules of law to a set of facts.
To score the most points on each issue, the essay ought to specify the issue, indicate which rule (or set of rules) a lawyer would employ to resolve the issue, articulate an analysis of how the facts of this hypothetical case are affected by application of the rule, and reason to a solid conclusion.
Lawyerly analysis, in its most fundamental sense, boils down to an interweaving of the facts presented in the hypothetical, with the law you have identified. Try to weave each fact into the analysis as it is brought up, rather than repeating or summarizing a series of facts and then commenting upon them. The essence of the analysis section of an answer is this: an interweaving of the facts (presented in the question) with the law (the rules, definitions and guiding legal principles used to resolve the legal problem identified by the issue). This interweaving is best accomplished by actually using “law words” and fact words in the same sentence(s) or paragraph.
Here’s an example of interweaving the law and facts in a short paragraph:
“When Jack left to hunt, he manifested his clear intent to breach his obligation to construct the room addition. The ‘half-completed’ status of the job, together with the timing (the completion date now moves from the critical date of March 10 to May 10) and the extra work would support an argument that the extent of performance was closer to minimal than complete. However, Jack would argue that his own costs of $50,000 demonstrate significant performance, supporting his position that the breach was only minor.”
The “fact words” above are obvious (including that Jack went hunting, the job was half-completed, the date change, and so on). The “law words” include: manifested his clear intent, breach his obligation, extent of performance, significant performance, minor breach. It is this interweaving of law and fact that one uses to show how the facts prove the elements necessary to prove (or not) the position for which you are arguing about the issue you’re considering.
Avoid writing conclusory answers or even conclusory sentences. They earn you no points on law school essay exams!
Law students: start now to practice being the kind of lawyer YOU would hire to represent YOU if your life or fortune depended on having the best advocate working on your behalf. The “practice” of law begins NOW.
Dennis Tonsing, a former California trial lawyer has served as Dean of Students, Senior Instructor, and Academic Support Program Director at three law schools.
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