Some words and arguments to avoid in law school exams

This post is the first in what I plan on making a short series dealing with some things that bother me while marking public law exams. I once wrote a post along these lines, but happily at Reading its very basic advice is not as necessary as it was where I used to teach. Do refer to it for 101-level stuff. And please also refer to Mark Elliott’s excellent and helpful post, over at Public Law for Everyone, on the importance of making an argument in an essay question (or indeed a longer-format essay). That would be the 201 module.

This, by contrast, is going to be “issues in” course. What this means, really, is a course in the professor’s pet peeves. Of course, different people have different ones, and these might only be mine. But I do hope that they are of some use, both to colleagues and to students, and I hope that they will make for some entertainment if nothing else. After all, the first lesson concerns f-words! No, no that f-word. There are others, including four-letter ones. The one I’ll mostly focus on is “fair”. But first, let me say something about “floodgates”.

Floodgates arguments generally suggest that A’s claim against B should not be entertained by a court, because if it is, other similar claims will be brought ― the floodgates of litigation will open ― and the courts will be deluged with more cases than they can handle. I don’t think that floodgates arguments are often successful in real life. If A’s claim against B is without legal basis or factual merit, it can be rejected, and the rejection ought to serve as a deterrent to analogous future claims. To invoke the floodgates argument is to implicitly concede that, at the least, there may be something to A’s claim. But having made that concession, an advocate and especially a court will find it awkward to peremptorily refuse doing justice for no other reason than to economise resources. If many analogous claims ― all possibly meritorious ― are out there, the injustice of refusing to consider them is only compounded.

As a result, floodgates arguments are rarely persuasive in student work either. Truth be told, they are often the mark of a weak script. It is sometimes difficult not to suspect that the student could think of nothing better, simply remembered this catchy name, and went with a floodgates argument for lack of an alternative. Perhaps even a weak argument, at least if it is used accurately, is better than none at all, though one might want to consider whether making an inherently feeble argument does not harm one’s cause by exposing the defects of one’s position. (This is certainly true of the “kitchen sink approach”; not only do many bad arguments not add up to a good one, but they make it clear that one hasn’t understood which arguments are worth making.) Anyway, if you are choosing among a floodgates argument and a different one, always go for the other idea, whatever it might be. I would suggest making it a rule to simply banish this particular f-word from your vocabulary. It is a crutch, and not relying on it will only help you by forcing you to think a bit harder and more creatively.

My beef with the other f-word, fair (or its derivative fairness), is much the same: it is a crutch makes students think they’ve made a satisfactory case when they haven’t. But the explanation is perhaps a little more complicated in this case, or at least harder to believe. Unlike the floodgates of litigation, fairness is not a fancy-sounding technical concept, but one that we appeal to all the time. Unfortunately, that is part of the problem. Nobody wants to be against fairness, of course. But we should all be wary when someone ― including, I am afraid, a student in an exam answer ― seeks to persuade us by making opposition emotionally difficult rather than logically impossible. We should also be wary of making such arguments ― ideally, out of respect for our readers but, failing that, out of a self-interested concern not to arouse their suspicion that we might be trying to trick them.

More substantively though, fairness ― despite its intuitive appeal ― is also an elusive notion. Just what it means in any given context is often unclear. Now, sometimes ― and in our daily life, often enough ― we have a good, and, importantly, shared, sense of what fairness requires. If you insisted on choosing where to go for dinner with your friend last time, it is fair to let the friend choose now. If you were late to the pub, it is fair to buy your friends a drink. And so on. The trouble is that shared understandings of what is fair run out quickly in the kind of situations that law school exams, and indeed a great deal of law ― perhaps especially, though by no means only ― public law in the real world deal with.

Does fairness mean that people should be subject to human rights constraints or allowed freedom from them? Does it require government to seek parliamentary approval for a given course of action? Does it mean officials need to comply with rash, perhaps untenable promises to members of the public? Students ― and not only students, to be, ahem, fair ― may think that there are answers to such questions. But there are usually people on both sides of them. If you find one in an exam paper, you can be very confident indeed that there are serious arguments on both sides. And people on both sides probably think that their answer is fair. This suggests that no real concept of fairness is doing the work of compelling an answer one way or another. At best, people rely on intuitions about what is fair. At worst, they are actively covering up their true motivations under the specious rhetoric of fairness. (To be clear, I don’t suppose students do this often, if at all.)

Of course, these questions must have answers, if only provisional ones, and there are reasons why the answers are or ought to be one way rather than another. But fairness is not such a reason. There are other considerations involved. Some have to do with specific constitutional principles such as individual liberty, government accountability, the Rule of Law, the sovereignty of Parliament, or what have you. Others are policy arguments (including the dreaded floodgates, though to repeat it is a particularly weak one). Usually, more than one reason bears on a given answer. Relevant considerations sometimes complement one another, and sometimes pull in different directions. But it is their summing up, untidy and unsatisfactory as it sometimes is, that actually answers difficult questions, rather than appeals to fair play.

As with “floodgates”, I think that students should banish the other f-word from their exam-writing vocabulary. If you feel the itch to use it ― and, given its ubiquity, that is understandable ― you should ask yourself why you think that this course of action, or this approach to the problem, or this rule, is or would be fair. And then, give that explanation, in as much detail as you have room for, instead of speaking of fairness. Again, this will force you to think harder ― but it will also make for better results, because you will be discussing actual principles and policy arguments instead of hoping that the marker shares your intuitions, or at least understands them ― and neither is a given.

Whatever their differences in detail, marking grids at every law school I have known as either a student or a lecturer reward, first, understanding of the subject and then, to get really high marks, critical thinking and creativity. Clichés and stock arguments add little to a demonstration of competence, and actively get in the way of showchasing originality. The less you rely on them, the better off you are likely to be.