Take off the IRAC and CREAC training wheels.
These acronyms reflect an oversimplified view of legal reasoning. Instead, structure legal arguments as conclusions followed by reasons.
Law students are commonly taught to organize their legal arguments according to the acronyms IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) or CREAC (Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion). Though perhaps useful as starting points for beginners, these formulas oversimplify legal reasoning and can produce unconvincing arguments or repetitive prose.
At the outset, students may be led astray by an assumption that the items called for by one of these acronyms are equally important. Not so. The most important part of a legal argument is the analysis in which an attorney applies the law to the facts. Issue statements, conclusions, rules, and rule explanations all carry little persuasive weight relative to the analysis.
IRAC encourages the poor practice of beginning an argument with an issue phrased as a question, as though a legal argument were a thriller whose ending should not be given away too soon. Instead, begin an argument with the conclusion you hope to establish. A judge can easily infer the issue to be decided from a brief’s well-stated conclusion. The “issue” is whether the argued-for conclusion is correct.
CREAC advises writers to begin and end with the conclusion. This leads some to unnecessarily repeat a statement they made a few sentences or paragraphs before. Although you wouldn’t want an argument to trail off, the idea that you must both begin and end every argument with a conclusion implies that the reader will somehow forget the aim of your argument before reaching its end. If that occurs, you’ve confused the reader and lost their attention; fixing that requires more than restating the conclusion.
Another way that CREAC encourages verbosity and a misallocation of the writer’s attention is by requiring an “explanation” of each rule (the “E” term). Only rules that are confusing or disputed should be explained.
Attorneys and law students often overrely on standalone discussions of legal rules. Rule statements are not arguments and cannot (by themselves) establish that a motion should be granted or denied. Instead, rule statements are legal premises that must be woven together with factual premises to support a conclusion.
Lengthy rule explanations delay the most important part of an argument: the analysis showing that (1) the rules you’ve selected are the ones the court should apply, and (2) applying these rules to the facts leads to your preferred conclusion.
An alternative approach: Conclusion + Reasons
In Elegant Legal Writing (forthcoming in February 2024), I recommend using the formula “conclusion + reasons” as the default structure for organizing legal arguments. Begin each argument and subargument with a conclusion, then provide the best reasons supporting the conclusion. Many of these reasons will themselves be miniature arguments: subconclusions supported by several linked premises.
For example, a conclusion that a driver is negligent per se (because they caused an accident while violating a relevant statute) might be supported by two independent reasons, each of which is a miniature argument: (1) the driver violated a traffic law by running a red light, and this act caused the plaintiff’s injury; and (2) the driver violated a traffic law by speeding, and this act also caused the plaintiff’s injury. If either act alone would have violated a relevant statute and caused the plaintiff’s injury, you’ve given the court two independent ways to reach your preferred conclusion.
The default way of ordering reasons should be from strongest to weakest, but logic and clarity sometimes require a different order — for example, discussing procedural reasons before substantive ones.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available on Amazon.
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