Forget Waldo – Where’s IRAC?

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By Alice Burke, The John Marshall Law School

Students new to law school are bombarded with new concepts and sometimes, their accompanying acronyms.  None of those acronyms seems to strike quite the same terror as IRAC.  For some students, the concept of IRAC is as elusive as Waldo.  The fact is, it doesn’t have to be.   If students simply know where (and how) to look, IRAC can materialize before their very eyes.

IRAC is not all that new to legal writing.  Many law schools were teaching students to organize their analyses using IRAC thirty years ago.  Many of those students can now be found sitting on federal and state benches across the country.    And guess what?  They’re still using IRAC to organize their legal writing.  And guess what else?  Their judicial writing is readily available to students everywhere in reporters, on electronic databases, and on court websites.

Students who want to see what IRAC looks like need go no farther than the nearest court decision.  If it originated within the last twenty years, chances are they will see an example of one of IRAC’s many permutations in action.  As a Writing Specialist helping students adapt their existing skills to the new dialect that is legal writing, I use many different approaches to help students understand how to incorporate IRAC into their papers.  And as you would expect, we spend many advisory sessions looking at student papers.  What you might not expect, however, is that some of my most fruitful advisory sessions have been spent looking closely not at the students’ papers but at the court cases that they are using to support their analysis.

When IRAC remains elusive to students, I invite them to take out one of their controlling cases, and we use that decision to “discover” IRAC.  Together, we find where the discussion begins, and identify the global rule statement.  We notice whether the court breaks the global rule into discrete elements, or explains away parts of the rule that for one reason or another are not relevant to the issue before it.  Then we move through the opinion to the first issue before the court.  We note how the court identifies the discrete issue, and segues from there into the governing rules of law.  We observe how the writer has narrowed the focus to a single part of the overall issue, and witness how case citations are woven into the paragraph.  We notice whether the decision uses multiple paragraphs to discuss the applicable rules and how the court uses the facts of precedent cases to illustrate how the rule works.

Then, we note where the “rule” portion of the discussion gives way to “application.”  We pay attention to transition words like “Here,” or “In this case,” that signal this shift, and then note how suddenly we start seeing far fewer italics (indicating decided cases) and far more proper nouns (indicating the parties in the case before the court).  We study how the court compares and contrasts the case to previously cited cases before reaching a conclusion on the issue.

If we are lucky, the decision then goes on to consider another element or factor.  We can look at how the opinion transitions from one to another and then I ask the student to tell me where the opinion identifies the next issue, outlines the governing rules, applies those rules to the facts before the court, and arrives at a conclusion.   Frequently, this provides the breakthrough the student needs to understand how IRAC works (and to convince them that it’s not some crazy thing their professor came up with but that nobody actually uses) and to use it to structure their own analysis. I encourage students to be alert to the presence of IRAC in the many cases they read for their legal writing classes as well as in their doctrinal classes so that they can begin to see its many subtle variations. Short of putting a distinctive red and white striped shirt on it, it is the best way I have found to help students find IRAC.



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