The Art of Solving Legal Problem Questions

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Legal problem questions are something that trip up many law students. After all these years of writing free-flowing essays, suddenly you have to completely change the way you think about writing and answering questions. Not only will the typical essay approach no longer work when it comes to tackling problem questions, but clear structure is more important than ever. So today I want to help you develop a process for answering problem questions that works every single time. 

I think problem questions are great if you have a system or process for approaching them, so this is how I’m going to break down the article. Firstly, I want to show you the wrong approach most law students take, specifically looking at how they differ from essay questions. Secondly, I want to help you create your own problem solving technique that is equally applicable across all your law modules. So stick around and let’s get into it.

❌ The Wrong Approach

Perhaps the biggest mistake law students make is using their essay skills to answer problem questions.

In my first year of law school, this is something that I did too. After all, why wouldn’t a problem question have an introduction and a conclusion? It seems as though it makes sense to demonstrate your contextual knowledge of the law and to show the examiner your thought process in a coherent arc from start to finish. Unfortunately, this just demonstrate a poor awareness of what a problem question really is. 

With essays, you are supposed to critically analyse the law and associated academic opinion, interjecting your own thoughts into a form of written debate. Whereas with problem questions, you’re not engaging in a verbal battle of opinions, but a structured application of the law to a set of facts. In other words, your goal is not to debate whether or not a law is right or wrong, but to offer advice to a fictitious client about their legal responsibilities.

Think about it like this: if they were a real client would you really sandwich your legal advice with introductions and conclusions? Would they really care about academic opinion or the intricacies of the law? No, that would be absurd! 

Your job is to simply and coherently explain how the law applies to the relevant facts that concern them, and what this could mean for them. Will they go to jail? Will they get a fine? What are the consequences? 

This is what your client cares about in real life and in a problem question.

✅ The Successful Technique

The key to writing brilliant answers to problem questions then is treating these fictitious clients as real clients and having a structured technique for providing advice to them. 

Your own university has probably given you some advice already on how to structure these questions, but they have probably done little more than chucked an acronym at you and left you to it, without explaining how you can use each element of these acronyms to your advantage. 

So, I will do their job for them by breaking down the technique that actually works.

4️⃣ The Four-Step Process: IRAC

The IRAC process for answering problem questions is my favourite acronym to use, and it stands for issue, rule, application, and conclusion. So, first you identifying the issue that you are dealing with and advising on; second, you identify the relevant legal rule applies; thirdly, you apply the rule to the issue at hand; before reaching a conclusion that answers the question.

⚠️ Warning

I’m going to talk about each element in turn, but before I do so it’s imperative you NEVER apply the IRAC process to the question as a whole. In other words, you aren’t breaking your answer into four big chunks where you begin by looking at all the issues, then all the rules, then apply the rules, before crafting a huge conclusion on everything. Instead, you are dividing the answer into a number of separate issues and sub-issues that must be explored in turn using the IRAC method. 

For example, let’s say we had a problem question dealing with 3 different people, Tom, Daisy, and Harry and their respective liability for an injury sustained by Emily. We could break down the problem question by structuring our answer as to the liability of each party (e.g. Tom’s liability, Daisy’s liability, and Harry’s liability). Then within each of these ‘issues’ we should be able to identify subissues, which we apply the IRAC method to. For example, you may have to analyse whether Harry owes a duty of care or whether there are any defences available to him, in which case you should make a statement of the law and apply it to the facts before making a conclusion on that subissue.

Warning to one side, let’s wrap our heads around each element of IRAC.

1️⃣ 1. Issue

Your job here is to look at the facts in the problem question and analyse them in relation to two key variables: parties and events. So, this is a two stage process.

Firstly, with respect to parties, jot down each of the people that are identified in the problem question and write next to them whether they are someone who has a claim (i.e. something happened to them) or they are someone who faces liability (i.e. they did something wrong).

Once you’ve done that, you want to determine how each of the parties relate to one another. In other words, you need to clearly write down how the ‘victim’ in the problem question relates to the ‘wrongdoer’ and what the specific event that took place to potentially give rise to a claim. 

The purpose of this exercise is to build the structure for your answer setting you up for success. The obvious approach would be to structure your problem question by considering each party one by one (e.g. Tom’s liability), but clearly establishing the issues allows you to see the myriad of possible offences that may need to be analysed as sub-issues. For example, if Tom killed Emily, we will have to analyse the actus reus and mens rea of the offence as sub-issues to help us determine whether or not it was murder.

2️⃣ 2. Rule

Now we have a structure for our answer based on the issues within the problem question, it’s time to turn to the law.

I like to open up my textbook, statute books, and relevant websites to simply learn the law around the issues I identified and create some VERY brief notes. There’s no need to go into too much depth because you’re simply looking for supporting authority. For instance, if I was trying to prove mens rea I may look for relevant cases that help explain what is meant by ‘intention’ or with theft I will be looking for its statutory definition.

My top tip here though is to avoid abstract statements of the law. The purpose of finding the relevant ‘rules’ is to simply state the law rather than applying – you don’t need to think too deeply as you’re only making it clear to the reader you are aware of what needs to be proved for there to be liability. What does the statutory law say? What does the case law say? These are the sorts of things you want to write down; the application of this law comes in the next stage.

3️⃣ 3. Application

Application is the crux of a winning answer to any problem question.

Having identified the issue at hand and the relevant law, our focus is on marrying them together to answer the questions. Fortunately, this is a relatively straightforward process as long as we aren’t lazy in our application and don’t just end up critically analysing the law as if we were dealing with an essay.

For example, if we were dealing with the issue of Tom taking Emily’s purse and his liability for theft, we would start by turning to the definition of theft, which is the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with intention to permanently deprive. 

By breaking down the components of this definition we find that the actus reus of theft involves appropriating property belonging to another. We can then apply the law to the facts by asking ourselves whether or not Tom’s actions of picking up the purse and placing it in his rucksack was an exercise of the rights of ownership, and therefore whether or not it makes out the actus reus of the crime. 

You see, a good understanding of the law makes its application to the facts quite straightforward. By doing the groundwork in advance of finding the issues, understanding the facts of the case, and identifying the law, you can approach the problem question with a coherent understanding of what advice you need to give.

4️⃣ 4. Conclusion

For each of the issues and sub-issues you identified at the start you need to form a conclusion. This conclusion must address the overall liability of the parties, including the potential ‘punishment’ that they could face, and ensure that all your conclusions are aligned and consistent with one another. 

Unlike an essay question, where a more authoritative conclusion is usually desired, in a problem question you don’t need to be determinative. The nature of a problem question means there are going to be some grey areas of the law and saying “it depends” could be the ‘correct’ answer. But if you do that, make sure you state what the contingent factors and how liability would differ depending on the approach taken by the court.

🎉 Final Thoughts

The whole approach is extremely methodical, and if you follow these steps in order every time you answer a problem question – regardless of the law module you are taking – then you have a strategy that should lead to some awesome answers. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach where you don’t even have to think to get first class grades.

A methodical approach is possible to many other areas of your law degree. So, if you enjoyed this article, you’d probably also enjoy learning more about my approach to studying: A Masterclass in Studying Law

Thanks for reading!