Tuesday, October 30, 2018
To lawyers, law students, and professors, the IRAC formula is as commonplace a tool as yellow highlighters or The Blue Book. Some may tout or prefer one of its dozens of variations, particularly in specific situations, but at heart, they all do the same basic job of providing a reliable structure for building an argument. It may take some time for students to internalize that structure and use it consistently. Once they do, however, some students lean on it heavily, as a way of making sure all the expected components of their analysis (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) are included. Other students may see it with more anxiety, as a set of expectations imposed by certain professors; they may worry that if they don't use IRAC, they won't receive full credit in their essay responses.
In either case, students can sometimes be stymied when trying to adhere to IRAC format in an essay test response that requires multiple pieces of analysis, like a rule with multiple elements. For example, trying to fit a discussion of a negligence claim into one big IRAC paragraph -- as some students may feel they are required to do -- may start off well, as the student correctly identifies the question of negligence as the issue and the requirement to show duty, breach, causation, and damages as the rule. But then the application section may become messy, as the student tries to write about each element. If more than one element depends on tricky or subtle facts, or if there are multiple arguments and counterarguments to some elements, then the student may struggle to control multiple threads of analysis, without additional structure, in an enormous paragraph that spreads over two or three pages. The student may lose some of those threads, and so might the reader.
This is an unsurprising consequence of the emphasis on sticking to an overall IRAC format: students, for comfort or consistency, might feel compelled to turn every argument into a unitary IRAC. This may be less of a problem for long-term projects, like a legal research and writing memo, where a student may be given more instruction about formatting and will have opportunities to rewrite and edit their essays. But on a timed assignment, like a final exam, the urge to create one big IRAC argument -- or the fear of not doing so -- can slow students down and inhibit clarity.
One way to help students improve their relationships with IRAC is to point out that a well-reasoned argument can have layers of IRACs built into it. The Application portion, after all, is where the meat of the analysis appears, and if that analysis requires that the student examine multiple elements, each element could be discussed in its own separate sub-IRAC paragraph. To use the negligence example:
Issue: Negligence claim
Rule: Duty, Breach, Causation, Damages
Rule1: [e.g., Obligation to act as reasonably prudent person under circumstances]
Application1: [Application of rule to specific facts]
Conclusion1 re: Duty
Conclusion2 re: Breach
Conclusion re: Negligence claim
This layering of IRACs allows students to take advantage of the order imposed by the format, while still providing the flexibility to address separate sub-issues separately. Theoretically, the layering could continue indefinitely, if certain elements have sub-elements to consider:
Rule3: Actual cause and Proximate cause
Issue3A: Actual cause
Conclusion3A re: Actual cause
Issue3B: Proximate cause
Conclusion3B re: Proximate cause
Conclusion3 re: Causation
This layering of IRACs may not always be the most artful way to organize a legal discussion, but in an exam situation in which students are trying to maximize speed, completeness, and clarity simultaneously, it can provide an efficient way for them to put together a complex analysis.