Legal essays are different ball game
Let us first define “Legal essay” as an essay written as law coursework. One may also write such essays as course work elsewhere where law is a subject, like accounts or business studies. We are not talking about other types of law essays like LSAT essays and law school admission essays.
This post focuses the unique features of legal essays, like legal citations and handling information from legal resources.
Just like a working lawyer, you should sift the data your faculty provides to extract what is legally relevant. Then search various legal resources and map them to the information you have. Lawyers call this “Legal Research”. Your faculty may not rate your legal essay high unless you support it with quality “Legal Research”. Now let us look at some unique requirements of legal essays.
- Various statutes, rules and court decisions are the primary resources of legal essays worldwide. Other materials like books, internet and the media are the additional resources. The names of the primary sources are different in different countries. Some countries call the “Bill of rights” as “Fundamental rights”. Just reconciling the different names is a big job when your college asks you to compare the laws of different countries.
- When quoting from legal digests and case law reporters remember that no digest or reporter reports all cases. Keep court resources like U.S. Reports that contains the official version of all of the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, handy.
- All digests provide a summary of each case they cite. Never quote from such abstracts. Always quote from the body of the decision.
The “letter of law” is essential. Hence use synonyms with care. Write in a direct and forthright language. Avoid hyperbole, similes, analogies etc.
Style, format and citations
- These should conform to the specific but varied requirements each legal jurisdiction. For example, in India all legal documents are written or typed on both sides of the paper. They score out the unused space and the signatories to the document sign in such places.
- The citation formats slightly vary from country to country and court to court. Generally USA follows the “Blue Book” of the Law Reviews of the Columbia University. Off late many have started using the ALWD legal citation system of the Association of Legal Writing Directors.
- While citing foreign cases in USA, it is better to gather all data like court, plaintiff, defendant, name of the resource, page number and date of decision in a separate worksheet. You may then redraft them in the Blue Book or ALWD format.
- The Cardiff index contains details of various abbreviations and resources of different countries.
Avoid quoting dissenting decisions, overruled judgments and obiter dicta
Obiter dicta are just the observations a court makes in a judgment. Unless you are writing on jurisprudence or legal history, such citations can confuse your message.