Whether you’re on your LLB, GDL, PGDL, CILEX, LPC, SQE… You get it – learning how to deal with problem questions will be essential to your legal education. And to be fair, it’s genuinely useful to learn how to assess problem scenarios as you’ll need to use similar skills in your professional future.
Problem questions will present you with a factual scenario and typically require you to assess the situation from a legal perspective or advise a fictional client on their rights and liabilities.
The best way to answer problem questions is to learn the technique. Examiners will expect you to answer problem questions in a particular way. Like with any type of exam, honing your technique is your best bet for problem questions too. In the case of problem questions, it’s all about learning to apply your knowledge to the scenario. So, here’s a few tips:
Use the right guides: If you know that you’ll be assessed by way of problem questions, then you should learn and revise the law in the same way. That way, the technique will be second nature to you. Reading a typical set of notes won’t help you to apply your knowledge, so we recommend using Law Answered’s notes. Their LLB and GDL notes deliberately use problem question structures (and other exam answer outlines) in order to help you learn the subject in the same way as you’ll need to apply it.
Think about “IRAC”: You might hear this term from a few of your tutors. It is an acronym to describe how you should structure your answer:
For example, if you were answering a problem question on a potential murder, you would begin with a brief description of the case of R v Defendant, in which the defendant killed the victim by stabbing him. You would state that the issue is whether the defendant has committed a murder, and legally define “murder”. You would then go through the rules of the actus reus and mens rea of the offence. You would then look at the rules in detail and apply them to the particular facts of the case, using examples from common law to illustrate why (or why not) the defendant has committed a murder. You would also look at the details of any defences that might apply. You would then conclude as to the defendant’s prospects. You can find a free PDF sample guide to answering a GDL murder exam question here.
Look out for red herrings: Examiners will sometimes throw in odd details to put you off. A common trick is to include a very specific date for when something happened. This could be the day before or after a particular statute became law. If so, your entire answer will change. Another trick is to have the fictional character or client in the question make an accusation or start a lawsuit along a particular legal line which is in fact the wrong line of enquiry.
Be practical: Answering a problem question is very different to answering an essay question. This is not an opportunity to engage in academic debate and jurisprudence. Instead, imagine that you are a lawyer giving practical advice to a real client – as if you are explaining the law and evaluating their circumstances and what the outcome in real terms will be. Showing off will not help you.
Slow down! Don’t make the mistake of skim-reading the question and rushing to write your answer – you might go down completely the wrong track. A good rule of thumb is to take five minutes at the start of your exam to properly read the question and understand the key facts.
Make a plan or a note of the key facts. Try writing down a few key words, a mini mind-map of connections or a mini chronology (timeline) of events – whichever works best for your style of learning. Writing down a few key words or facts will help you digest the problem question. For the same reason it’s good to occasionally check back in and re-read the question as you write your answer.
Answer the question set! Most importantly, you need to make sure you are answering the exact question, with the exact facts, that you have been set. So many students slip up because they do not check back in with the question and end up side-tracked and discussing a marginally relevant issue. Your answer is only worth any points if it is directly relevant to the problem question scenario. Look back to make sure that you are directly answering the exact question set. Use the same terminology that the question uses to avoid straying.
Now, if that all makes sense, you need to make sure that you’ve got the technique straight in your head. The solution is simple: practise, practise, practise! Take every opportunity you can to practise. Put effort into any mock exams on your course and take any feedback on board. Get hold of as many past papers as you can and practise writing answers under timed conditions. If your tutor is nice, they may be amenable to you asking for extra feedback. Never be afraid to ask for help as early as you can! It would be far worse to wait until the last minute.