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Legal reasoning? It’s all about IRAC


As beginning law students soon learn, what we call “legal reasoning” can be expressed by the formula IRAC. It stands for Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. It is the format used by lawyers in preparing legal memoranda. And the structure that most judges use in drafting judicial opinions. It’s also the type of analysis that law professors—and importantly, bar examiners—look for.

Importance. IRAC is as central to legal analysis as the formula E=mc2 is to physics. Over three decades ago, University of Texas law professor, and leading authority on legal writing, Terri LeClercq called IRAC “the golden-rule acronym for organized legal discussions.”  A recent article by Michigan State University law professor Stephanie LaRose affirms that despite some critics, “variants of the IRAC method continue to be the gold standard in legal memorandum and brief writing.” Go for the gold! (Wikipedia lists 20-plus IRAC variants.)

In his article, “The Importance of IRAC and Legal Writing,” Jeffrey Metzler rightly concludes: “IRAC is the key to success on law school exams, the bar exam, and a successful career in litigation.”

Any doubt that IRAC is key to bar-exam essay-writing success is resolved by this passage from an article in The Bar Examiner, published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE): “A candidate must demonstrate mastery of the fundamentals of IRAC (the Issue-Rule-Application-Conclusion structure of legal analysis) . . .”

Notorious for introducing multiple-choice testing on the bar exam, the NCBE also supplies essay questions to all but a handful of jurisdictions. They know what they’re looking for.

Origin. Where did IRAC originate? One researcher declares, “Though many scholars reference IRAC in legal writing literature, there is no clear record of its genesis.” The earliest reference to IRAC found in a search of legal literature dates to 1961.

In a sense, IRAC is as old as the deductive syllogism. First, identify the salient issue (“Is Socrates mortal?”). Then, state the applicable rule (“All men are mortal”). Next, apply the rule to the relevant facts (“Socrates is a man”). This leads inexorably to the conclusion (“Therefore Socrates is mortal”). 

One origin story is that IRAC was devised by the United States Army as a means of teaching a sudden mass of raw recruits, drafted to fight in World War II, how to problem-solve on the battlefield.

Bar-review courses were among early proponents of IRAC. The first may have been Michael Josephson’s Bar Review Center (BRC), formed in 1969.  By 1980 BRC was enrolling 14,000 students in 14 states, with annual sales of $4 million. Josephson sold the company in 1985 for $10 million.

IRAC may have helped us win World War II, it made Josephson a multi-millionaire, and it can work for you. The CALI (Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction) website offers a helpful online tutorial that coaches law students through each element.

Template. Here is an IRAC template I have shared with my first-year students. It incorporates certain “trigger” words (in italics):

            The [first/next/last] issue is whether . . .

            Under the [general/majority/modern] rule . . .

            Here the facts [do/do not] indicate . . .

            Therefore [I/a court] would conclude . . .

                         And, add where appropriate:

            On the other hand, if . . . , then . . . , because . . . 

The italicized words are well-established terms that lawyers use to introduce issues, rules, facts, conclusions, and alternatives. Use them as signposts to help the grader follow your analysis. (Some commentators oppose beginning issue-statements with whether. But it’s the practice followed by the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office. That’s good enough for you and me.)

Give me an O. On the other hand is a useful “flipper.” As with a pinball machine, it serves to redirect the pinball upward so it can score additional points. Use it wherever there is more than one rule. The “Williston rule” vs. the “Corbin rule” on parol evidence might be an example, if your Contracts prof covered both.

Or maybe the facts are ambiguous enough—by design or carelessness—to admit of more than one reasonable interpretation. If so, explore both. Rather than ignoring alternative rules or ducking conflicting facts, rejoice when the opportunity is presented to leverage them to score extra points.

Recall the joke, “I need to find a one-armed lawyer. I’m tired of them saying ‘On the one hand’ and then ‘On the other hand.’ ” Well, it’s no joke—it’s what we lawyers do: turn the question over, look at both sides. When writing exam answers, act like a lawyer.

I have often seen students leave points behind by failing to explore all reasonable alternatives. For that reason, I have created my own IRAC variant by adding an O for On the other hand. Go for the gold. Win the war. Use both hands. Achieve essay excellence with IRAC-O.

This post originally appeared on the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School blog.

Norman Otto Stockmeyer Norman Otto Stockmeyer is a distinguished professor emeritus at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School. Although retired from classroom teaching, he retains an active interest in helping law students succeed.