A guide to writing a first class law essay

This article provides straightforward advice as to how to write first class and upper first class papers in the general field of Law. Need it be said, Law is a tricky subject. Scoring even a 2:1 grade for a Law paper is quite an achievement. In the following commentary we will explore the sort of characteristics and qualities that an examiner or assessor is likely to expect to find in a top class paper.

Putting it simply, this paper gives advice as to how to break through the 2:1 barrier and start producing consistently first class work!

However, before we proceed with a brief survey of those ‘first class’ qualities, it is necessary to make one important point. Law is a largely subjective discipline - it is a matter of opinion and quite flexible in its application. It is quite rare to be able to pinpoint one wholly correct answer to any particular question. There is no such thing in Law as 2 + 2 = 4.

It is accordingly very difficult to guarantee with absolute certainty that any particular paper will be graded at any particular standard by an independent external assessor. This is because the marking process is inherently opinion-based: entirely dependent on and exclusively subject to personal value judgments, bias, weightings and context unique to the assessor.

Simply put, grading Law papers is a matter of opinion and no two lawyers ever have an identical set of opinions! Indeed, even at the very top of the legal profession, no two substantive judgments of Supreme Court Justices on a given case are ever precisely the same. In fact such judgments will often differ quite widely in tone, content and emphasis and they may contradict each other entirely.

Having made this important point, there are of course a series of standard and fairly objective quality indicators that will, generally speaking, combine to lift a paper out of the 2:1 range and into the first or even upper first class band. It is entirely possible to ensure that a paper is equipped with these characteristics so as to guarantee the work the best possible chance of a first class mark.


First class quality indicators are as follows:

1. Neat and appropriate presentation

Presentation should be consistent, smart and appealing. It is important to showcase and ‘package’ your work as well as you can, because first impressions count. An assessor will already have started forming an impression of the sort of grade he or she is likely to give a paper on the first glance at it.

2. Good, effective structure

The right structure will depend on the nature of the paper. Essays should be organised under clear subheadings that signpost the commentary and provide a coherent internal structure. Reports are often organised under numbered paragraphs and subheadings. Dissertations and longer research essays may be organised under abstracts, tables of contents and chapters broken in subsections. The important thing is to adopt the right structure for the type of work being prepared.

3. Clear, accurate writing

Good grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation will be expected. Don’t worry, the writing does not have to be flawless, but only a few mistakes will be tolerated. Eloquence, clarity and fluency of expression will always be appreciated and rewarded. In this day and age spilling(!) mistakes will seriously damage a paper’s chances of securing a first class mark. This is because we live in an age of spell checkers and automatic text checking and a failure to realise a paper contains incorrect spelling suggests a significant lack of care and attention.

4. Evidence of editing

This point ties into point 3. Before an assessor grades a paper as a first class piece of work he or she is likely to check the paper for the sort of polish and finish that is expected of good quality, edited, work. Every writer in the world needs to edit their work. This writer personally guarantees that if you take the time to read through a finished paper carefully once it is completed (even work you have a really good feeling about) you will find numerous ways of making little improvements to it, and all those little improvements add up.

5. Great referencing and use of authority

Diligent, useful, comprehensive, specific and prolific referencing is a must if a first class grade is the target. Referencing must advance, illustrate, challenge or otherwise inform on the analysis being developed in the paper. Referencing should be page-specific, directing the reader to the specific part of the external source that you wish to integrate in your own work. The reason for the reference should be clear. Referencing should not merely be tacked on to signal the writer’s ability to read around a subject. It is not meant as a device to allow the writer to boast about well read he or she is. Good referencing is a particularly important requirement in Law, where every point and assertion made must be backed up by relevant authority, and every argument made will be strengthened if a solid grounding for it can be identified. Use cases - plenty of them - usually just a sentence or two is sufficient to integrate a case into a developing analysis.

6. Knowledge, understanding and command of the subject

The paper must demonstrate knowledge of the relevant law. The writing must illustrate a deep and thorough understanding of the subject. The paper must demonstrate that the writer has really ‘got to grips’ with the subject and that he or she has an appreciation of the issues and context that is both current and detailed. A good paper will always have a contemporary flavour, because Law is a constantly evolving subject area.

7. Cogent application

Knowledge and understanding of the law is not normally enough by itself. It is usually necessary also to demonstrate the ability to be able to apply the law you have correctly stated in order to solve a particular problem, provide useful advice or address a particular issue. A first class paper will not merely state the correct law but apply it in a effective and confident fashion to derive legal answers.

8. Logical flow and coherent development of argument/analysis

It is not enough to state the law and apply it correctly if a first class grade is the target. The paper must also embody an argument or analysis that develops in a logical, natural, systematic and well ordered fashion from issue identification, through analysis and authority all the way to conclusion. It is a good idea to select a method of organisation and stick to it. Sometimes it will be appropriate to tackle issues chronologically, or in order of perceived importance and sometimes questions and problems will dictate an obvious order of their own, which should be followed.

9. Relevance

Always answer the question - keep your response relevant. If a problem question directs you to advise Adam about a contract formation issue then make sure you do exactly that. Don’t merely embark on a rambling essay-style response that spouts everything you know about the subject in vague and unfocused terms. This seems obvious but speaking from experience many lower quality papers begin life as focused analysis/advice problem responses and end up dissolving into rather vague, essay-style commentaries. The answer must be adapted to the question in terms of style and content throughout. Of particular importance in this regard is the concluding section, which must readdress the question posed and answer it directly, uniting and synthesising the strands of analysis developed in the main body. Re-read every single sentence. Unless it is possible to connect a sentence directly to the question or issue raised in the title, then the sentence should be deleted. There is no space for irrelevant comment in first class work.

10. The X-factor: independent intellectual endeavour

This is hard to define, but obvious when demonstrated. First class work will typically contain some evidence of original analysis and insight or personal argument proposed and introduced by the writer himself or herself (and backed up by authority). Your opinion counts and will score a lot of marks if fairly sensible and reasonably well argued even if the assessor does not agree with it. Don’t just passively cite sources or academic commentators - challenge them, criticise them or debate them. Don’t be afraid to rate and question other opinions yourself, perhaps by reference to other commentators or primary source material such as case law.


Upper first class work is a very tall order indeed. Some assessors are reluctant to award upper firsts because to do so constitutes a very strong statement about the quality of a paper and it is often ‘safer’ to hold a paper down in the first class range. Upper first class work must be close to perfect. It is necessary to remove every possible ‘excuse’ to award a lower grade.

It would be possible to score a first class grade if a paper was less strong on one or two of the above ten criteria, as long as there was strength in depth in regards to the other identified aspects. When it comes to upper first class work all the above ten criteria must be comprehensively met and there must be strong evidence, in particular, that criterion 10 is amply satisfied. Upper first class work must be deemed head and shoulders above averagely good submissions in all respects, and must display original, insightful, authoritative legal skills in abundance. No significant mistakes will be tolerated. There is a big difference between first class and manifestly upper first class work. Just for example, some law lecturers have reported that as a general rule of thumb they expect upper first class work to utilise around double the number of sources and references that solid first class work utilises.

One final point. Writing first class Law papers is a skill just like any other. If you want to become a brilliant footballer or a Formula One racing driver you need to kick a ball or drive a car. Regular practice will make you - not perfect - but less imperfect. It is the same with writing on the Law. Practice it and you will get better. The more you practice, the better you will get. Consider the very first time you kissed a girl/boy (delete as appropriate). Now consider the twentieth time you did. It was probably better.