In Defense of IRAC
My Dear Wormwood:
October is upon us, leaving memories of warm days of summer and forcing our cold-weather clothes out of their hibernation. And all over the country, 1Ls like Will Baude are either writing their first legal memoranda or receiving their first batch of criticism. And with that comes moans of complaint about the tedium of IRAC.
Far be it from me to go against the pack, here, Wormwood, but I'm going to make a guilty admission: the more I've thought about it, the more I'm enamoured of IRAC as a part of legal writing, legal training, and even legal exam writing. Certainly, it doesn't turn out the most elegant prose, the most dramatic language, or the most gripping reading. Done skillfully, however, it turns out prose which is efficient: both quick to write and (just as important) quick to digest.
(For a contrary view, see Heidi Bond's "Why IRAC sucks.")
First, to give a summary of the IRAC format : it stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion. Briefly put, it suggests that every paragraph (and indeed, most structures made up of paragraphs within a memo) should begin by stating the issue and following that with a restatement of the relevant legal rule. Next should come an analysis, and finally a brief conclusion.
One common misperception with regards to IRAC, here quoting Ms. Bond: "IRAC sucks because it makes it seem that I, R, A and C are co-equal in importance, when in actuality, A is the big screaming winner." This equivalence is certainly not the case, and certainly wasn't what we were taught in our legal writing classes. The analysis is the key to success in almost any enterprise centering on... well, analytical reasoning. Nonetheless, the presence of all four parts in uniquely identifiable chunks does have some advantages.
So, dear nephew, in the hopes of convincing you of the benefits of IRAC, let me address one frequent complaint, along with two positive aspects that I feel often get overlooked.
1. IRAC does not have to sound clunky. One common complaint with regards to the IRAC structure is that an IRAC argument will sound stilted: because each paragraph has the same structure, it will read in a manner that's almost machine-produced.
This is simply not so: there is nothing in IRAC that suggest that you cannot alter the order of sentence components, use varied and eloquent active verbs, or even pose the occasional rhetorical question, if such is your wish. What it does say is that the information in a paragraph should come in a certain order unless there is a particularly good reason to deviate from it.
Let's take Ms. Bond's "souffle-grade" example from her anti-IRAC piece:
Jane failed to look both ways before crossing the street, which generally no reasonable person would have done. However, the street was a one-way street; we think you need to look both ways to protect against bidirectional traffic. John's coming the wrong way down a one-way street may have been wholly unexpected. John might argue nonetheless that she should have heard him coming, as he was driving a large noisy tractor, and that reasonable people use senses other than sight to identify potential dangers. However, the proximity to the airport makes it likely that Jane would have ignored loud noises. Jane's probably not negligent here."
This isn't IRAC, even though it is a well-written paragraph. Nonetheless, it can be turned into an IRAC-style without losing a bit of its charm:
The first issue is one of Jane's negligence, which turns on whether she took reasonable care in crossing the street. Reasonable care in such a tort action is normally defined from the standpoint of a "reasonable person" in the actor's position, not the view of the actor herself. On the one hand, John will undoubtedly argue that looking both ways at a street-crossing is only reasonable, and that anyone reasonable would look in the direction of a large, noisy tractor before stepping into traffic. Jane, on the other hand, will point out that most people only look into traffic when crossing a one-way street, and John was coming from the other direction. Furthermore, as the intersection was near the airport, a normal person might very well ignore loud noises. Given that in her specific position a normal person might very well look only one way, she is probably not negligent here.
True, the IRAC entry is 30% larger, but that's not incredibly bad as far as bulk goes. In addition, it provides two further pieces of information: an immediately accessible idea of the standard we'll be using to judge negligence (objective), and a scope of what's under discussion: Jane's negligence.
On the other hand, the paragraph is far from 'formulaic.' The Issue (Jane's negligence) sits in a single sentence with half of the Rule, while the other half is stated in the second sentence. There's no reason for the first sentence to use the word "issue": it might well read, "Jane's negligence will turn on whether she took reasonable care in crossing the street." (On the other hands, if you know your Prof reads papers quickly, a little helpful highlighting may not hurt.) Other paragraphs are likely to divide the parts in other places, employ different sentence structures, or shift otherwise to maintain the reader's interest as much as possible.
2. Almost no one 'reads' legal memoranda. Now, the above is not to suggest that memos, articles, or opinions written in IRAC will be as lovely in style as Baude's beloved Nabokov or gripping as the latest Tom Clancy page-turner. In the hands of a good author, it won't sound terrible, but it probably won't sound brilliant, either. Yet consider this: on most of your legal memoranda, writing as well as Tolstoy sniffing the distilled essence of Faulkner will do you no favors at all. Simply put, the 'plot' you're discussing won't support a blockbuster, which means your prose won't have to either.
In law school, some of your teachers will read every exam, every paper, every essay very carefully, noting the intricacies of arguments and the interweaving of facts. Others, however, are going to scan. And I'm willing to say, dear Wormwood, that this will not be unique in your professional life. Before coming to law school, my website proposals were scanned by clients, my budget proposals were scanned by managers, and my monthly reports were scanned by team leaders. Now that I'm here, I'm sure that professors have scanned my exams and TAs my assignments. When I'm an associate, hurried partners are likely to scan my memos to grab the key points, rather than treat them as artwork. (This is one reason I blog, after all: at least I can get a warm glow out of thinking that someone, somewhere actually reads a piece of my writing.)
And IRAC does make things very easy to scan. Take a look at the two examples above, and then ask yourself the question, "Has the author grasped the legal rule?" The analysis is the same in both: neither in my answer nor Heidi's is the reader examining the subjective viewpoint of the actor. Nevertheless, if you were reading quickly to see if someone had grasped the subjective/objective divide, you're unlikely to skip over the fact in the IRAC piece. It "hits you over the head," a term that Heidi uses derisively, but is in fact very useful. Imagine you were reading, instead of two papers, two hundred, possibly after large quantities of coffee. Which is more likely to impress upon the reader that you know the rule?
This leads to things that look less than ideal in "standard" writing. The text is often a little lengthier. (For this reason, brevity elsewhere is prized.) The document itself is frequently internally redundant. And yet for all that, it's quite useful to its audiences.
This actually goes for many forms of professional writing, not just IRAC'd memos. When I used to write proposals for websites, I knew that my clients were interested primarily in two things that would drive them to sign onto the bottom line: a statement of benefits and an overall cost figure. On the other hand, I needed to make sure that they'd internalized what they needed to provide me in order to meet deadlines, and my team required a fairly detailed idea of what would be coming in the specification. This meant the document was going to be bulky--maybe 20 to 30 pages--but my client was only ever going to read three or four. If you read the document straight through, the continual repetition of key points would get annoying, perhaps even patronizing. Fortunately, no one ever did that--except my team members, who were paid for the work.
In other words, Wormwood, most of IRAC's stylistic virtues actually make the information within easier to digest. Readers know where key features are, because they generally anticipate the document structure. Points you wish emphasized stand out by virtue of being in the 'right' place. And all of this makes the tired, harassed, and hurried reader that much happier that they've not been confronted with War and Peace, or even a stylistically astute but difficult e. e. cummings.
3. IRAC makes writing quite swift. The final virtue, dear Wormwood, of the IRAC method is that it really makes writing memoranda relatively quick, assuming that you've organized your thoughts reasonably well. This is a virtue of any form of 'mechanical' writing, primarily because almost all styles of mechnical writing are designed to do just that.
(Note that here I'm speaking of memoranda more than law exams: on an exam I normally have to 'wing it' more than I might like to. But IRAC truly excels in memo-writing, particularly if like myself you're reasonably lazy, and want to claw back some of your memo-time for sleeping, eating, or blogging.)
My normal habit in writing a memo by IRAC, or at least the discussion section, is to write like a machine. First, I write the first sentence of every paragraph, which should at least encompass the issue I wish to address. If a section covers an issue with three sub-issues, I write four paragraphs with issue sentences, and a fifth with the first sentence of an overall conclusion. Then I go through the document paragraph by paragraph, making the specific case. Finally, I fill in transitions, clean up the grammar, and work on a bit of style. (This, by the way, is common advice, not just my invention.)
While this doesn't work for everyone, I find it significantly cuts down on the rewriting I need to do in second drafts. Paragraphs are rarely out of order, because I've cut through that in the first stage. If an argument is left out, it doesn't mess up paragraph transitions, because they're not written until near the end of the process. And early on I've gotten most of my issue spotting out of the way, because if an argument lacks subsections, it's noticed early on.
Once again, this is a quality of all 'mechanical' or stylized writing, not a feature unique to IRAC. Nonethless, it does make legal writing a bit less time-consuming once you've gotten used to it.
And that 'getting used to it,' dear Wormwood, is the final advantage of IRAC to an education in legal writing: in the course of your career, you're almost certain to be told not only to write an argument, but to write it a certain way. And in a firm, you may very well be told to write a certain way by a partner who controls your next assignment, your bonus, and a great deal of your future. Learning how to adapt your style to what seems to you to be iconoclastic restrictions is a useful skill in itself.
(And remember, those restrictions may have reasons that aren't immediately apparent to you. Remember the proposals I talked about above. When taught how to write one, the standard tech might consider them dull and repetitive, because in his experience they were. But to the client, they were almost all unread, and to myself as project manager, they were redundant to assure client buy-in on key points. Documents live within social and organizational structures, and sometimes those have rules you don't immediately see.)
But please, dear Wormwood, don't take the above as the knell of doom, some proclamation sentencing you to a life of dreary, lifeless text. IRAC is a form, but so are a lot of forms that a good writer learns to live with. Genre is a form: once upon a time I went two weeks recording my life in the style of a hard-boiled noir novel. The villanelle and the sonnet are forms, and though highly restrictive, they produce works of staggering beauty. (Though I promise that whatever other travail you endure, I will not inflict my poetry on you.) Just as these forms are challenging, difficult, or sometimes frustrating, so is the IRAC argument. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy the mastery of it.
: Editor's note: although some of the Letters to Wormwood series will from here on in be aimed at 1Ls or, in the future, 2Ls, I'm still writing it as if "Screwtape" is talking to "Wormwood" before he enters law school. For this reason, the series presupposes what knowledge I had as a JD2B, which is to say nearly none.