Teaching Legal Analysis in International Law (R.I.P, IRAC)

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My legal skills colleagues at the Hague University for Applied Sciences Department of International and European Law have an on-going debate about the utility of IRAC in the legal skills classroom. IRAC is the classic legal analysis tool used in (Anglo-American) law schools. IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion. It’s users claim that this is the ideal way to consider any legal problem. It is primarily used to write legal memoranda and court briefs and is also used to brief cases from courts.

I hate IRAC. There, I’ve finally said it. Before you send the legal skills police out for my arrest, you should also know that I don’t like anything that restricts innovation and creativity, in general.

Deficiencies of IRAC

More seriously, though, I hate IRAC because it ignores two very important aspects of good legal analysis —  (1) the facts and (2) the decision-maker. Without considering these two elements in legal analysis, you get a rather hollowed out understanding of the law.

One of my greatest pet peeves as a skills lecturer is the essay that arrives on my screen stating, “The Court held in decision X that an employer who prohibits employees from wearing a cross to work violates Article 6 of the Z Convention for Human Rights. Therefore, my client’s rights have been violated under Article 6 of the Z Convention for Human Rights.”  These cursory summaries of court holdings wear on my patience because they are not particularly enlightening without a fuller understanding what the facts and circumstances are of the complainant in decision X and what your client’s facts and circumstances looked like in comparison. It would be equally helpful to know the jurisdiction the Court has over Article 6 of the Z Convention for Human Rights. Analysis that focuses on the issue, rule, application and conclusion often easily misses these important details.

I know what you are thinking right now. You’re saying, “But, Dr. Lewis, the application portion of IRAC expects you to discuss the facts!” Does it really? Because I keep reading essays, memoranda and, yes, scholarly journal articles, where this crucial discussion is missing.

When I judge at moot courts, one of my favorite questions is, “What are the facts of that case?” My questions are, more often than not, met with silence or a vain but frantic rifling through pages of notes to find that non-existent case brief with the facts. When I follow up that question with my second favorite question, “Why should this panel follow the decision in that case?” students are often at a loss to explain whether the decision of that court can bind the panel before which they argue.  Facts and decision-makers matter. IRAC encourages omission of these important elements.

Take Action

Let’s press our students to engage more with the facts of a decision and with their own scenarios. Let’s also ensure that they understand the difference between binding and persuasive decisions and soft law. We can only do this by going beyond the restrictive boundaries of IRAC.



Legal Skills Lecturer in The Netherlands. (J.D. Columbia University; PhD Maastricht University International Human Rights Law.)

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