Heidi Bond on ‘Why IRAC Sucks’

The title is not a misprint. This is not a post about Iraq. It's about IRAC — a technique for answering American law school exams.

UM has a lot of services designed to help students who are having trouble in law school. Most of these push IRAC, a very mechanical and ultimately unhelpful approach to answering questions. Since this is the lifeline we throw the flailing I feel somewhat estopped from undermining it. But I have never liked IRAC. IRAC will sometimes take a “C” or “C-” student up to a C+, which is something (it can keep you off academic probation), but not enough. Until now I've never had a good short explanation of why it's unlikely to take you much farther.

In the future, however, I will point students to Heidi Bond's latest essay, Exam Tips 1: Why IRAC sucks.

And, as always, I will tell them that their goal should be to get to Maybe.

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9 Responses to Heidi Bond on ‘Why IRAC Sucks’

  1. MP says:

    Abandoning IRAC is very poor advice to give a law student. I finished my first year of law school near the very top of my class, with IRAC forming the general outline of nearly every paragraph I wrote. The key is to explain to students that “A” (applying the law) is what separates the men from the boys. The problem isn’t IRAC, its how it is used.

    Further, Getting to Maybe is useless. I would describe it as strategical commentary–what students need is *tactical* advice. For that, I credit all my success to the treatise sold on http://www.leews.com. I recommended it to a collegue’s son who went on to just finish his 1L year at your school in the top 5. I have no association with the product or author. The web site is cheesy, but the treatise is excellent, the tapes probably not needed. He never cracked open Getting to Maybe, but told me that it was required for, conveniently, the class taught by the author.

    The treatise, as I remember, is quite critical of law professors and blames them for the majority of the reason why students do poorly on exams. That is to say, most or all lecture time is spent on “R”-the history, theory, and policy implications of the Rule. Students are blindsided by exam questions that require them to “A” (apply or argue) when they were expecting to discuss the theory behind the “R”. Sometimes that theory can bag a few points, but the meat is in the “A”.

    I spoke with the student I recommended that treatise to, and he said something to the affect, “I felt sorry for the other kids, they wasted a tremendous amount of time and effort all year on things that wouldn’t help on exams.” He said one bright kid left the exam of the guy that wrote Getting to Maybe and threw the book right in the garbage. I asked him if anybody from the administration ever approached him and asked what he thought contributed to his success. He said no. Well, I guess that’s what happens when the author of an exam taking guide works at the school.

  2. disaffected law student says:

    “Getting to Maybe” destroyed me on my first 1L exam; the professor put me in the bottom 33% of grades because I “wrote too much.” She admitted I had everything the “A” exam she let us see did, but that I had gone into too much by also considering how alternative rulings on one issue would affect the outcome of other issues.

    The instant response will be, “you had an idiosyncratic professor, most professors like it when you address those consequences,” but that’s my point: law professors have no training in education and they teach the most amorphous and ambiguous subject in all of academia. As such, there is no good advice for a law school exam because the exams are graded purely according to the professor’s preference.

    There is only good advice for people learning law–and that is to understand what the rules are, what the policies behind the rules are, and to know important facts upon which the application of the rule has hinged in past cases. I won’t tell you that will help you with your grades–I knew that before entering law school and it didn’t seem to help me much through my actual grades–but it will help you understand the law in general.

    For exams, do what you think the professor wants. The only correlation I found was between my grades and–not time invested, not my feelings of understanding, not secondary study resources, not group work–simply how much I liked the class. The more I liked time spent in class (not even the subject matter), the better I did. Why? Because I was closer to the idiosyncratic way the professor thought.

  3. MP says:

    “As such, there is no good advice for a law school exam because the exams are graded purely according to the professor’s preference.”

    I am sorry you feel this way, but you are wrong. The A students, and there always are some, are proof. Don’t kid yourself into thinking they figured out the ideosyncracies of all their professors. I got A’s in classes I barely attended from professors I wouldn’t recognize on the street.

    Once you figure it out, or have it explained to you, you will realize that essentially, they are all asking for the same “thing”.

    I even had friends bring me their exams where they thought that the professor was being “ideosyncratic” and was screwing them. I told them the truth the polite professor didn’t want to, namely that the answer really was crap. So with all due respect, your prof is probably just not willing to break it to you the hard way.

    The problem, is that you weren’t exposed to the proper way to take a law exam. If its not too late, check out the link I gave above, or ask a fellow student who has used it. It really is great in that it gives you concrete tacticts to apply, rather than abstract garbage. how to prepare, how to use the first few minutes of the exam, how to physically write your answer, everything. getting to maybe is several hundred pages of theory, after you read the first chapter you can put it down.

  4. disaffected law student says:

    The professor I mentioned was simply incompetent; her grades were far out of line with grades other students received from other professors.

    I don’t doubt you waltzed into several As–but did you waltz into any Cs? Did you have to tango into the remaining As? What accounted for the difference? The A students and the D students are merely proof that there exists some standardization in the grading of exams, not that exams are graded in a consistent and uniform manner that accurately analyzes a discrete set of skills.
    The mere fact that there exists such disagreement over the best method for taking a law school exam speaks for itself. Froomkin probably wouldn’t like my IRAC and you’d like my IRAAAC. Getting to Maybe would like my 2I -> R^2 -> A^4 -> C^8.

    I’ll take a look at the site but, frankly, after a year of law school I certainly wouldn’t say that grades are arbitrary, there’s a generalized legal skill that accounts for the difference between an A and a D, but anyone who thinks the difference between an A- and a B- is not primarily determinied by the professor’s personal preference is simply wrong. It’d be foolish to try to score opposing briefs in a real case, and few lawyers would tell you it could be done. But that’s exactly what law professors claim to do.

  5. Heidi says:


    I skimmed the LEEWS treatise, and found it basically useless. My personal feeling on LEEWS is that it guarantees Bs because it won’t tell you how to get an A. You’re right that “Getting to Maybe” isn’t tactical, in the sense that Sun Tzu doesn’t give you pointers on how exactly to deploy your troops when faced with a particular situation. This doesn’t make it bad advice; it does mean that you have to supplement it with a specific tactical plan. I think LEEWS does a crappy job of providing that plan.

    As for your other comments, had you read what I wrote you’d have noticed that I say that the problem isn’t IRAC, but how it is used; that the big winner is A, A, A. I’m a little confused that you think that your professors didn’t spend time on this in class–the point of discussing R, theories behind R, etc. in class is not because you need to know R, but you need to know how A has applied in forming R, so that when you are asked to formulate R#2 given a different set of facts, you can extrapolate A#2.

    Finally–and this is a personal peeve–any professors who tell their students that analysis is what separates the men from the boys should be taken back to the nineteenth century and shot by suffragettes.

  6. Jean says:

    Using decent grammar, logical structure and analysis is inherent in good writing – whether in law school or not.
    IRAC always seemed ridiculous and artificial. I also think the “Getting to Maybe” is way over-hyped. But it sold many copies for the professor.

    There is no magic to good writing.
    Once one grasps the basics of grammar, organization & analysis, success is a matter of psychology. Some people are able to write well under pressure of an exam, and some are not. I received A’s in the classes or with professors I didn’t like, as often as I did in classes I did like. Sometimes, my desire to *do well* hurt me because of increased anxiety. Other times, it helped. My grades were sometimes less a measure of my knowledge in a given area than they were reflective of my passion for the material.

    Similarly, there is no *magic* approach to the mystery of how to study. The material is conceptually easier than what I took in undergraduate school. Although I understand the irritation with studying all that theory when the ‘black letter law’ is tested, there is no shortcut to a solid education. In undergrad, I had to learn calculus and differential equations when the following year I discovered transforms that reduced them all to simple, algebraic formulas. I don’t regret it. Learning the *theory* gave me a much broader understanding than I would have had if I had simply learned a cookie cutter formula.

    Would or did it matter, in the long run, regarding work? I don’t know. I do not regret ploughing through physics and math, even though I never once used differential equations, abstract algebra or topology in practice. This may be true in law, as well. I don’t know — I have been struggling with my health and have not yet really worked in law.
    I do know I am greatful for my education and the perspective it gives me.

  7. MP says:

    Heidi-“had you read what I wrote…” I skimmed it and found it basically useless.

  8. Heidi says:

    MP, If you even glanced at what I wrote and got the impression I was giving advice and that the advice told people to abandon IRAC, you need to work on your skimming skills.

  9. MP says:

    You titled a document, “Why IRAC Sucks”, then wonder why a disinterested, glancing reader draws a conclusion different from your thesis. Oddly enough, that type of writing style shows you have the makings of a law prof! Kudos!

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