Let’s Talk About I-R-A-C

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By Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law

Love it or not, IRAC forms the backbone of any legal analysis. How we talk about it with students-and when-can greatly influence their ability to perform legal analysis skillfully across multiple courses. Many of you are now grading essay exams and perhaps seeing surprising shortcomings in the analysis. How could the class have spent the past 14 weeks painstakingly testing the logical limits of various rules, dissecting their premises, and so on, only to receive an answer that leaps immediately from a conclusory statement to a brief discussion of nothing but facts? In addition to more common tools such as practice or sample essay tests, you may wish to try a few ideas aimed at the transfer of learning.

  1. Harmonize mixed messages. If you talk about IRAC to your students, poll colleagues to see how they discuss the same concepts with students. Our law school did so about two years ago and discovered that while we thought we were sending consistent messages to our students about how to perform IRAC for essays, we often used conflicting terminology, taught varied acronyms (IRAC, CRAC, CREAC, CREXAC, FIRAC, etc.), and expected different stylistic preferences (often unstated). For example, students are taught in most legal writing classes that IRAC can be broken down as CREAC so that lawyers remember to analyze both the rule and the facts (rule Explanation and rule Application). Other classrooms usually put the whole of analysis under the “A” in IRAC. Because “A” means to legal writing students “apply law to facts,” they may assume that under IRAC, the A is just application to facts and does not include “explain and analyze the law.” See also Mark Wojcik, “Add an E to your IRAC,” Student Lawyer, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2006).
  2. Disclose unstated expectations. If you do not talk to your students about IR[E]AC, you may wish to do so to improve the chances that exam answers will better resemble expectations. Do not assume that just because students have received IRAC instruction in other courses that they will successfully anticipate how to apply those skills in your course. That process of transferring IR[E]AC skills from one course to the next is trickier than one might expect; these are higher-order analytical skills and not rote tasks. For those who feel strongly that there is not enough time to review those skills in class, one option is to consider attaching an annotated sample to your syllabus or posting one to your course webpage. See also ILTL Idea of the Month for May 2011: “Setting Expectations for Exam Essay Structure and Strategy.”
  3. Portray IR[E]AC as a flexible, adaptable framework. I sometimes hear professors, judges, practitioners, and others tell impressionable law students that IRAC doesn’t always work in the real world. While it may be true that a poorly executed IRAC analysis doesn’t work, IREAC just identifies the inherent logical sequence of any analysis of the law or how it applies to facts. It’s an empty framework that needs to be filled with a number of sub-sequences. Part of the problem is that the standard IRAC acronym, sans “E,” hides the need for rule analysis, including statutory interpretation. It also doesn’t include a “P” for policy or letters for other nuances in analysis. That “P” is a subpart of both rule explanation and rule application-it still happens inside an IREAC. That is why instructors should expressly state those expectations in assignment instructions and essay exemplars. See Hollee S. Temple, “Using Formulas to Help Students Master the “R” and “A” of IRAC,” Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research and Writing, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Spring 2006) (347 KB PDF).