Thinking Like a Lawyer: IRAC For the Real World

Clear argumentsToday, we’re thrilled to welcome Keri Clapp, professor and tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox, to talk about a very important topic — how you can take your IRAC skills outside the classroom and into the real world, to contribute in a important way to shaping public discourse. 

Welcome, Keri!

There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about fake news, “alternative facts,” and the role that the press ought to play in reporting on our government. Lately, I’ve been struck by how few people are genuinely open to discussing the pros and cons of issues. Many well-educated and generally thoughtful people have simply picked a “side” and won’t even listen to information that might contradict their “verdict.” Sure, reasonable people can differ on [many] issues, but shouldn’t there be a thorough exchange and vetting of real facts, law, and information?

You Can Add Value to the Conversation

I want to encourage you to take your “thinking like a lawyer” skills outside the law school and into the forums where issues are being discussed among your peers and government representatives. You are uniquely equipped to do more than pick a side because you are being professionally trained to see the nuances of complicated situations and issues.

When you started law school, you may have been surprised to realize that “success” didn’t come primarily from memorizing, or even learning, the material (although yes, you do have to know the law to pass the bar exam), but from excelling at critical reasoning and analysis. From the very first time you heard the IRAC or CREAC acronyms, you have been learning to craft the tools you need to reach thoughtful, well-reasoned, and persuasive conclusions.

How Law School Prepares You to Contribute

Think about how you approach an exam hypothetical.

  • First, from a complicated fact pattern, you focus on and separate the real issues from the distractors.
  • Next, you identify the rules that apply to each issue. You break each rule into its elements and then analyze each component separately. You consider how courts have looked at these elements in past cases and then look for analogies and distinctions—how are your facts similar to or distinguishable from the facts of the precedent cases? What facts are determinative? What policy concerns motivated the law?
  • Ultimately, you reach a conclusion only after you have carefully balanced all the reasonable arguments and counterarguments for each side on every element or issue. If you do this well, you get a good grade.  (In fact, more exam points are generally awarded for a well-balanced and well-reasoned analysis than for reaching a “correct” conclusion.)
What Legal Analysis Requires

Lawyers often get a bad rap but I believe that students of the law have a critical role to play in the ongoing discussion and debate in our political system because we have learned to dig deep for the best, not the easiest, answer. A solid legal analysis requires you to understand and consider:

  • All the parties and issues involved;
  • The precedent that applies;
  • The logical connections between rules;
  • The arguments and counterarguments for each side;
  • The ripeness of a determination; and the
  • Policy that both informs a decision and flows from it.

The best law students delve deep into the facts and ask a lot of “W” questions—who, what, where, why, when—using an analytical approach that traces its roots to ancient times.

Looking at all sides of an issue is something that a lot of people simply don’t do. Many people reach quick or knee-jerk conclusions (based often on emotion or identification) and then only accept as valid those facts, statements, and information that bolster the verdict they have already reached. They search for and interpret new evidence only to confirm their existing beliefs or theories. You know better because you have been taught better.

Get Out and Have Your Say!

Bring these skills outside the hallowed halls of your law school and into the community. Our nation is in a time of vigorous (to choose one of many applicable adjectives) debate and needs people who refuse to settle for easy answers and sound bites. As Lee and Alison said in a recent message: “Never forget that what you’re learning in law school has real value in the real world, for real people.” Take those critical reasoning skills and use them to make your own contribution to the public debate.

Thanks, Keri! Excellent advice all around.

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About Keri Clapp

Keri Bischoff Clapp is a law school and bar exam tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. Keri’s love for writing led her to journalism school and then directly to law school at Penn Law, which she absolutely loved. Keri was an executive editor and published author of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

After law school, she learned many life and professional lessons by clerking for a woman federal District Court judge in Philadelphia. Keri then joined a large Philadelphia law firm as a litigation associate and later worked as in-house and trial counsel for a U.S. government office.

The next act of Keri’s career brought her into the classroom to teach undergraduates and law school students. Among other courses, she has taught business law, legal research and writing, and bar exam preparation.

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