How short is a piece of string?

How short is a piece of string?

A week or so ago I was in Hong Kong and a student asked me a question that I’m frequently asked: “How long should my answer be?”  Students who ask this are keen to know how much they should write in the examinations to answer a question – but more importantly – how much they should write to do well.  The answer is simple; you should write enough to answer to the question.  A straightforward question; a clear-cut answer.  I don’t for a moment imagine that those of you in the first term of your studies will gain much comfort from this answer (even though it is true) because behind this question there are many other questions about how to succeed as you study law.  I recall (I have a very good memory) that when I started studying law that it was three months before I had any clue as to what studying law was really about and that it wasn’t until the January mock examinations that I realised how little I understood.  So, don’t panic yet.  Wait until February!

Studying law is a complicated business and while you might find some subjects fascinating you will probably find others dull, dry or even puzzling.  Criminal law is often the most exciting subject for Year 1 students (I hated it) and Public law the driest (especially if you don’t live in the UK).  Contract law (my favourite 1st year subject) may seem more logical but in truth it depends on your interests and the way your mind works.  The pain is that you have to succeed in all these subjects – especially if you’re a Graduate Entry student – to secure a legal career.

So, how long is a piece of string? Or, more pertinently, how short?  It will be just over six months before most of you write examinations but it’s never too early think about your technique.  The best students, those who get First class and Upper Second class marks, do not write long answers; their answers are in fact noticeably shorter than those who get Lower Second class or Third class marks.  The best students write enough to answer the question but they don’t include irrelevant material and they never go beyond one supplementary answer booklet.  So, think green, save paper, and don’t write too much!

What should you write little about?  Well, you should aim to answer the question.  For Problem Questions the ISAC method is straightforward.  It is however, just a method to approach the answer, it’s not a magic solution.  You still need to know the law.  ISAC requires you to Identify the legal issues; Select the relevant law; Apply the law to the facts and finally, Conclude.  Good answers require a combination of both knowledge and skills.  You may know the cases and legal principles but that’s just one half of the equation; you also need to know what to do with that knowledge and how to use that knowledge to craft a good answer.  Skills are often thought of as second to knowledge but I think that knowledge is a poor second to skills.  Great skills and a little knowledge can get you much further along the road than lots of knowledge and few skills.  First class answers do not include noticeably more cases or authorities than Lower Second class answers but First class answers apply the cases clearly and precisely to the facts of the problem.

Keep it short and answer the question; but how?  How will you learn to do this?  The answer is simple but not easy.  You must learn to think like a lawyer, and more particularly, like an English lawyer.  Not because English lawyers are superior to other lawyers but because you are studying an English law degree and law is peculiar to the society in which it exists.  So, and here’s the hard part, you should read cases.  Not textbooks that tell you about cases or other people’s summaries of cases or magic notes provided by your tutors but real cases. It won’t be easy at first but it will get easier and it will help you in many ways.  It will help you to learn the law; it will help you to think like a lawyer; it will help you learn the skill of answering a legal problem and it will help you to succeed in examinations.

When I started studying law we were told that it involved lots of reading and that, initially at least, we would find the amount of material overwhelming. We were asked this question: “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer, we were told, is that you cut it into bite size pieces.  I assume the moral of the tale was that when you face an overwhelming task the way to tackle it is to break it down into manageable pieces.  I have never tried eating an elephant – but I would recommend that you start to cut into bite size pieces your studies for the next six months and that you focus not merely on knowledge but also on skills.   In this way you will discover how to keep you answers short, precise, clearly applied and perhaps First class.  Enjoy!


  1. Dear Simon,
    Thank you very much for your nice and effective advice.

    This message should be posted on VLE and also should be sent to the students through EMAILS. I just do not suggest printed format for the students as you do advise for “think green, save paper”!



    (AZM Waliul Islam)
    Research Facilitator and
    Faculty Member,
    Bhuiyan Academy

  2. your message gave me a sense of courage and made me look at this course different seeing that there is that chance for my success with a little more effort

  3. Having read what Simon wrote gave me the reassurance I needed to my final year in my LLB. Everything he mentioned was relevant and accurate…I couldn’t have given better advice.
    Good job Simon! Cheers.

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