A majority of the equations in the Legal Reasoning Section of National Law School Entrances revolve around the principles of Law of Torts, Law of Contracts and Criminal Law.
There is a simple formula to legal reasoning that can be learned quickly and practised to perfection.
- 1 FOUR STEPS TO THINK LIKE A LAWYER
- 2 THE IRAC FORMULA
- 3 RULE – WHAT IS THE LAW?
- 4 ANALYSIS – THE ART OF LAWYERING
- 5 EXAMPLE 2– CIVIL PROCEDURE (HYPOTHETICAL)
- 6 EXAMPLE 3 – CRIMINAL LAW (HYPOTHETICAL)
- 7 EXAMPLE 4 – TORTS (HYPOTHETICAL)
FOUR STEPS TO THINK LIKE A LAWYER
A law school education is not about learning a set of rules. It is designed to teach you how to “think like a lawyer.” Lawyers can always look the law up in a book, but designing an argument and analyzing a legal problem, is a matter of reshaping the way a person thinks. Four key strategies will aid you in thinking like a lawyer.
Four Steps to think a Lawyer
1. Accept ambiguity
2. Don’t be emotionally tied to a position
3. Argue both sides
4. Question everything
Step 1: ACCEPT AMBIGUITY
There is always an exception for every rule of law, except for the rules in which there are no exceptions.
This statement seems circular and contradictory. It states a general proposition that every rule has an exception. Then it goes onto say there’s an exception to this rule for rules that have no exceptions. It’s like the childhood riddle, where someone states, “I am a liar.” If that person is a liar, how do you know that he is telling the truth in the statement that he is a liar?
The law is full of conundrums and ambiguities like this. If you can accept the interplay between those two statements without being distressed at the inherent fuzziness, then you will do well. The law is inherently fuzzy in order to be flexible. Although judges attempt to interpret laws that are clear, there is almost always a set of circumstances where applying the rule would be unjust. Consequently, some latitude exists in the law in order to reach a just result.
This can drive you mad as an aspiring law student. You want as clear of an answer as you would get in mathematics or physics. The law is seldom black and white. Everything is a shade of grey. The right answer is almost always couched in terms of probabilities. “Maybe he’s liable for damages.” “He’ll probably go to jail for murder.”
There is no way around this, and the best method is to embrace and accept the inherent ambiguity of the law as a strength. Instead of thinking of the law as ambiguous, consider it flexible. Your skill is legal reasoning will be in how you can use this flexibility to achieve the correct result for your client.
Step 2: DON’T BE EMOTIONALLY TIED TO A POSITION
One of the biggest traps is playing on the emotions. The facts pose a hypothetical situation in which it is easy to hate one of the parties and sympathize with the other. The trick is to apply the law neutrally in response to the parties’ legal rights and not your personal feelings.
This does not mean that you have to forego your ethics. People complain that lawyers have no morals but these critics don’t see the higher principles that are at stake, which might be constitutional rights such as free speech or the right to be represented by lawyer. This is the higher ethical ground that you need to take rather than siding with one party or another merely because of your own beliefs.
Step 3: ARGUE BOTH SIDES
In order to avoid being emotionally tied to a position, you should always try to argue both sides of an issue. Luckily, the same ambiguity of the law that seems crazy in Step 1 allows you the flexibility to be on either side of a question in Step 3. Adopting this attitude will better prepare you for the exam. You want to be able to take on either a defendant’s or plaintiff’s position for any given legal issue because you don’t know whether the facts on the exam will lean towards one side or the other.
One of the biggest traps that students fall into is studying only from their own point of view. For instance, some students are naturally on the plaintiff’s side- fighting for the underdog against the big corporate giant. Others tend towards representing defendants – protecting shareholder interests from people out to make a quick buck on a fraudulent claim. Each side is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Your immediate goal on the exam is not to figure out what kind of stance you take. Your immediate goal is to do well on the exam. This means that need to be able to argue the side that seems to be correct given the facts. This may, in fact, be a party that you wouldn’t normally side with.
Step 4: QUESTION EVERYTHING.
Around the age of two years, a child starts asking his or her parents “Why?” – you should be like this two-year-old. Every rule of law, judicial decision, statute and legal construct has a reason for its existence. It may not be a good reason, but you will be better off for behaving like a two year old and repeatedly asking “Why”?
THE IRAC FORMULA
IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, and conclusion) forms the fundamental building blocks of legal analysis. It is the process by which all lawyers think about any legal problem. The beauty of IRAC is that it allows you to reduce the complexities of the law to a simple equation.
ISSUE What facts and circumstances brought these parties to court?
RULE What is the governing law for the issue?
ANALYSIS Does the rule apply to these unique facts?
CONCLUSION What position or stance do I take?
ISSUE SPOTTING – THE FIRST STEP
The facts of a case suggest an issue. The key to issue spotting is being able to identify which facts raise which issues. Because of the complexity of the law, the elimination or addition of one fact (such as time of day or someone was drinking) can eliminate or add issues to a case thereby raising an entirely different rule of law.
Ask yourself some of these questions as you read the facts:
What facts and circumstances brought these parties to court?
Are there buzzwords in the facts that suggest an issue?
Is the decision to be taken a question of fact – i.e. the parties are in dispute over what happened –or is it a question of law – i.e. the court is unsure which rule to apply to these facts?
What are the non-issues?
Whenever you read facts, state the issue as a question, turning on a set of particular facts.
RULE – WHAT IS THE LAW?
The issue is covered by a Rule of law. Simply put, the rule is the law. The rule could be common law that was developed by the courts or a law that was passed by the legislature. For every case you read, extract the rule of law by breaking it down into its component parts. In other words, ask the question: what elements of the rule must be proven in order for the rule to hold true?
Questions to ask when reading a case:
What are the elements that prove the rule?
From what authority does it come? Common law, statute, new rule?
Although the rule is the law, the art of lawyering is in the analysis.
ANALYSIS – THE ART OF LAWYERING
Compare the facts to the rule to form the Analysis. This important area is really relatively simple. For every relevant fact, you need to ask whether the fact helps to prove or disprove the rule. If a rule requires that a certain circumstances is present in order for the rule to apply, then the absence of that circumstances helps you reach the conclusion that the rule does not apply.
For instance, all contracts for the sale of goods over Rs.5000 have to be in writing. Consequently, in analyzing a contract for the sale of goods, you apply the presence or absence of two facts – the worth of goods and whether there’s a written contract – in order to see whether the rule holds true.
The biggest mistake people make in an exam is to spot the issue and just recite the rule without doing the analysis. The examiners want to test whether you can apply the law to a given set of circumstances. The analysis is the most important element of IRAC since this is where the real thinking happens.
Questions to ask when reading a case:
Which facts help prove which elements of the rule?
Why are certain facts relevant?
How do these facts satisfy this rule?
What types of facts are applied to the rule?
What’s the counter – argument for another solution?
CONCLUSION – TAKE A POSITION
From the analysis you came to a conclusion as to whether the rule applies to the facts. The conclusion is the shortest part of the equation. It can be a simple “yes” or “no” as to whether the rule applies to a set of facts. The examiners will often give you a set of facts that could go either way in order to see how well you analyse a difficult issue. The mistake many students make is to never take a position one way or the other on an issue.
Another common mistake is to conclude something without having a basis for the opinion. In other words, students will spot the issue, state a rule, and then form a conclusion without doing the analysis. Make sure that whatever position you take has a firm grounding in the analysis. Remember that the position you take is always whether or not the rule applies.
If a rule does not apply, don’t fall into the trap of being conclusive on a party’s liability or innocence. There may be another rule by which the party should be judged. In other words you should conclude as to whether the rule applies, but you shouldn’t be conclusive as to whether some other result is probable. In that case, you need to raise another rule and analyse the facts again.
In addition, the conclusion should always be stated as a probable result. Court decisions themselves differ widely on a given set of facts, and there is usually flexibility for different interpretations. Be sure to look at the validity of the opponent’s position. If your case has flaws, it is important to recognize those weaknesses and identify them.
In each one of these examples, a hypothetical fact pattern is broken into IRAC elements by using the steps of the IRAC formula.
EXAMPLE 1 – CONTRACT (HYPOTHETICAL)
Rule: A contract must be in writing if it is not possible to perform the contract within one year.
Facts: An old man who is very ill and near death makes an oral contract with his nephew. The terms of the contract are that the uncle will immediately give his nephew all his life savings- Rs 1,00,000- in return for the nephew’s promise to provide food and shelter for the old man until the man dies. The nephew takes the money and supports the old man at a cost of Rs.10,000 a year. The old man lives longer than expected and is still alive after fifteen years, at which point the nephew cuts the old man off without further support.
Issue: Is an oral contract valid after fifteen years?
Note that the issue is stated in the form of a question and uses key facts to illustrate the problem.
Don’t be alarmed if you dont see the issue right away.
The rule does not state that the contract must be performed within one year. It only states that it must be possible to complete the contract within a year. Since a very ill, old man could have died within one year, it is possible that the contract could have been completed.
This analysis shows how closely you must pay attention to the wording of a rule. The words “not possible” indicate that a remote possibility of being able to complete the contract means the rule does not apply.
The Rule probably does not apply in these circumstances, and the oral contract is not invalid even though it was not completed within one year.
~ Conclusions should be short and put in terms of a probability
EXAMPLE 2– CIVIL PROCEDURE (HYPOTHETICAL)
Rule: The principle of res judicata states that once a final judgement on merit has been made on a particular case, the plaintiff is barred from bringing that same case against the same defendant in the same or different court.
1. Meenakshi sues Rahul Sunkaria in a city civil district court over money that she says he owns her.
2. She wins her case.
3. Rahul Sunkaria appeals the decision in the appellate court, which overturns the lower court’s decision on a technical error.
4.Meenakshi appeals to the High Court, and the court refuses to hear the case.
5. Meenakshi attempts to sue Rahul Sunkaria a second time in the city civil court system over the same issue of the money she says he owes her.
Issue: Does the fact that Meenakshi took her case to the High Court and lost prevent her from starting the same case in a city civil court?
This is a Civil Procedure case. Civil procedure questions quite naturally focus on whether a plaintiff or defendant has correctly followed the dispute – i.e. whether the plaintiff or defendant wins.
Analysis: Since Meenakshi appealed the case to the High Court, a final judgment is considered to have been made on the matter. She has exhausted all the potential appeals by going to the High Court which has ruled on her case. If she attempts to bring the same cause of action (i.e. the same particular facts and controversy) in a city civil court, then Rahul Sunkaria argues to have the case thrown out of court using the principle of res judicata.
Conclusion: Meenakshi cannot bring the case to the city civil court.
EXAMPLE 3 – CRIMINAL LAW (HYPOTHETICAL)
Rule: The common law requirements for a burglary are that there be:
1) a breaking 2) and entry 3) of a dwelling 4) of another 5) at night 6) with the intent of committing a crime therein.
Facts: Just as the sun is setting one night, Srinath sees that the door to Venkat’s house is ajar.
He knows that Venkat has a home office in which there is expensive computer equipment.
He pushes the unlocked door open, walks into the house and steals Venkat’s computer equipment that is valued at well over Rs 50,000.
Issue: Is opening an unlocked door to a building at twilight to commit a theft sufficient to constitute a charge of burglary?
Analysis: Element 1 – Although the door was ajar and unlocked, Srinath’s merely opening the door was sufficient minimal force to constitute a breaking since the nearly shut door was meant to deter unwanted entry. No actual breaking of the door or lock is necessary.
Elements 2, 3,and 4 – Srinath clearly entered the house, which is not his own. This is considered a dwelling since Venkat regularly used the house for sleeping purposes.
Element 5 – Whether it would be considered night at twilight is determined by whether Venkat’s face could be discerned in natural light at that hour.
Element 6 – Stealing items worth Rs.50,000 is a crime.
Notice how methodically each element is proven using the facts provided. Even though something like entering seems self-evident, the fact that the defendant actually crossed the threshold has to be stated in order for the legal analysis to be complete.
Venkat is probably subject to a charge of burglary even though it was not technically night time and the door was unlocked.
EXAMPLE 4 – TORTS (HYPOTHETICAL)
The three elements of battery are:
1) a harmful touching of another person
2) the defendant caused the touching to occur directly or indirectly and
3) the touching was intentional.
Facts: Prakash and Deepak are neighbors who hate one another. One day Deepak is nailing some boards together on the common sidewall that he shares with Prakash. In a classic slapstick comedy move, Deepak picked up a board just as Prakash is passing behind him and swings around so that the back end hits Prakash in the head. The smack in the head causes substantial injury to Prakash.
Issue: Is existing malice between two people enough to show the intent necessary for liability for battery?
Analysis: Element 1) The hitting of Prakash in the head with a board is considered harmful since it caused substantial injury.
Element 2) Deepak directly caused the injury since he was physically holding the board as it swung into Prakash.
Element 3) The question whether Deepak intended to hit Prakash is a matter of fact that must be decided by a jury. The fact that Deepak hated Prakash may weight in the matter but is not the complete reason. Deepak must have known that Prakash was behind him and intentionally swung the board so as to purposefully harm Prakash.
Conclusion: Without further evidence, the facts do not appear to indicate the intent necessary for Prakash to sue Deepak for the tort of battery.