By Professor Herb Ramy
Director, Academic Support Program, Suffolk University Law School
The facts from the problem must reappear in your answer or you are not performing legal analysis. There are few absolutes in law school, but including the facts in your answers to essay questions and legal memos is one of them. Remember, most law school essay questions are written in the form of a lengthy fact pattern or story. The facts within these stories create the issues, and almost every one fact in these stories must be reproduced and discussed in your examination answer (or legal writing memo). While it is true that your professors will know the facts in the problem, they do not know whether you understand which facts critical and relevant to resolving each issue. Including the critical facts in your answer does not guarantee success on your law school exams, but excluding the facts guarantees that you will perform below your capabilities.
On exams, the process of including the facts in an organized fashion actually starts with the law. For example, consider the common law definition of burglary, which is the “breaking and entering another’s dwelling at night with the intent to commit a felony.” Black’s Law Dictionary, 191 (Bryan A. Garner ed., 7th ed. 1999). This definition of common law burglary is comprised of multiple elements, and you must use these elements to organize your discussion of the facts. So, when you discuss whether a “breaking and entering” has occurred, for example, you should include only the facts that are relevant to this element. This process of identifying an element and then addressing facts relevant to its resolution continues as you discussed each of the elements of the crime of robbery.
One way to ensure that the facts are making their way into your essay examination answers is to place a line through each fact as you use it. Do not cross the fact out so that it becomes illegible, however, because a single fact may be relevant to more than one issue. After you finish your essay answer, look back at the fact pattern. If there are facts left over, one of three things has occurred: (1) the facts are truly irrelevant and do not need to be discussed (unlikely!); (2) the facts are relevant to an issue or issues that you have already discussed; or (3) the facts are relevant to an issue that you have not addressed at all.
As for supposedly irrelevant facts, professors rarely place information into their fact patterns that does not need to be discussed. Most “irrelevant” facts are there so that you can explain why they are irrelevant.
Lastly, including facts is not the same thing as performing analysis but it is an essential preliminary step in the analytical process. Once you have identified the relevant facts, and then included them in the correct locations in your exams or memos, you are an important step closer to performing legal analysis. I will be addressing these additional steps in a future “tip of the week.”