Top Ten Tips Essay Competitions

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City GDL student Elijah Granet won first prize in the Property Bar Association (PBA) Essay Competition 2020 for his essay entitled: Banishing Banner Homes: Why the Supreme Court Should Separate Domestic and Commercial Equity. In this piece he offers advice to other students, encouraging them to enter as many competitions as possible!

1. Act like a barrister

The most intimidating hurdle for legal essay competitions is often the prompt, which asks a big, open question on an area of law. It can be hard to stake out a confident position on say, the rules of evidence, if you only started studying criminal law a few months earlier.

The solution is simple: approach the competition like a barrister’s brief. A barrister in contentious cases is told her position first, and then has to first, find the strongest arguments in her lay client’s favour, and second, adduce evidence and authority to defend that argument. (Mooters will be very familiar with this process). For essay competitions, I recommend beginning by finding an existing debate in law—be it one in your textbook or in recent judicial decisions or the academic literature—and picking out a side (it doesn’t matter which). Then, find and marshal the most original and effective arguments in favour of your chosen side. This narrows your task from a hugely intimidating one (such as developing informed opinions about all of criminal law) to a narrow one. It also saves time by focusing all your research efforts on the single task of defending your corner of the legal argument.

2. Plan ahead

Not a minute to waste!

Law students, by nature of their chosen course, have pretty packed schedules, which make it easy for deadlines to slip by unnoticed. I recommend checking out both Lawbore and your university portal (at City this is Moodle) at the beginning of each term, and noting the due dates for each of the various essay contests. There is even a list on Learnmore to help you. Then, put reminders in your calendar 2 weeks or so before each deadline alerting you to the need to write up your submissions. Just by keeping track of deadlines, you already have a huge advantage on the many other law students who would have liked to enter the contests, but forgot until it was too late.

3. Be prepared to cut... a lot!

Snip! Snip!

Many essay contests have very tight word limits of 1000–1500 words. This is generally a good thing—it means it doesn’t take too long to write your entry! However, these word limits also mean that you have to be prepared to excise out many insightful or interesting observations. When you break an essay down into its typical structure (introduction, background, argument, conclusion), it’s actually very hard to fit in a great deal of content in a space as short as 1000 words (especially if footnotes count towards the total). It’s much better to focus on using those limited words to make a few points well, rather than saying many points in outline.

4. Get your facts right

Most legal essay competitions are judged by practitioners in the relevant field. This means that your entry will be read by an informed and intelligent audience (which is a good thing). It also means that there’s a good chance the people reading your essay are very familiar with the issue you’re discussing, and thus highly likely to notice any minor factual errors. It’s thus absolutely worth taking the extra time to make sure that any assertions you make about the law have authority, either in academic writings or precedent.

5. Take advantage of your faculty

Your law lecturers and tutors are an excellent resource for discussing current debates in law, and helping guide your research, and they are (almost always) happy to help you learn more about the law. Take advantage of this, and drop your faculty an email, or make an office hours appointment. Similarly, get in touch with your law librarians for help researching a topic, or even on learning OSCOLA formatting (discussed below). If you’re completely lost on research, you can always pick up a book devoted to the topic, such as Legal Research: A Practitioner’s Handbook (ed Emily Allbon). This should be in your university library. There are lots of useful online tutorials out there too; including this one from the library team at the City Law School.

6. Use OSCOLA (unless there’s a house style)

OSCOLA Cheatsheet

Some essay competitions (particularly international ones) give detailed specifications on how they expect submissions to be formatted. Always follow these guidelines to the letter; writing is like: the house (style) always wins.

However, many other competitions don’t specify how they want your submissions, then you should usually follow the recommendations of OSCOLA (and, to a lesser extent, the Cambridge Redbook). As the Cambridge Law Review guidelines neatly say, your essay should ‘be fairly compliant with OSCOLA, though it need not be perfectly so’. The reason you should generally follow OSCOLA is not because it’s perfect, but rather because it’s so standard as to be unnoticeable. You want your citation style and formatting to be unnoticeable, because you want the judges paying attention to your content, not the way you typed footnotes. The golden rule is: if you deviate from OSCOLA, it should be for a good reason based on prevailing practice (eg using JSC rather than OSCOLA’s preferred SCJ for Justices of the Supreme Court).

One OSCOLA tip for essay competitions: OSCOLA specifies that short works (ie essays, articles etc) do not ordinarily require bibliographies or table of cases in addition to footnotes (which are always required). So, unless the competition otherwise specifies, you can avoid spending time compiling those. The full OSCOLA guide is a bit overwhelming sometimes - the Quick Guide can answer many queries.

7. Be respectful of judges, counsel, academics, and everyone else

The legal world is surprisingly small, especially in specialist legal areas. The judges of the competition are very likely to personally know or, indeed, be the people you mention in your essay. Disagreement and debate are an essential feature of the English legal system; no one will be the least bit insulted by your argument, so long as you are respectful. You are absolutely entitled to say that you think that a given court got a decision wrong, but be polite about it. The rule of thumb is that you should always criticise the reasoning, and never criticise the judge. For example:

  • BAD: Smith LJ mistakenly imposed a constructive trust when he ought to have used a resulting trust.
  • GOOD: It is respectfully submitted that a resulting trust would have been better fitted to the circumstances of the case.

The only time where it is ever remotely acceptable to direct anything amounting to personal criticism of a judge’s actions is if you have explicit higher court authority saying that a judge’s individual actions were mistaken (eg Bubbles & Wine Ltd v Lusha 2018 EWCA Civ 468). Even then, always err on the side of respect; no argument is ever made worse by adding in politeness.

8. Have your essay read by at least one person who isn’t you

Get someone else to read it

This is absolutely crucial. After spending hours and hours lovingly crafting your essay, you will, understandably, have lost any ability to objectively analyse your own work. You’re too attached. That’s why you need someone — be it a friend, parent, or tutor—to give your essay a once-over and provide valuable external feedback.

9. Good writing is as important as good law

Essay prizes are primarily awarded not for the best ideas on law, but rather for the best writing about the law. Your essay needs to engage the judges and catch their attention in order to stand out from all the other submissions by clever law students. If you have time, read or watch previous Hamlyn lectures or Williams lectures, which showcase excellent persuasive rhetoric by senior jurists.

10. Maximise the utility of the project

The process of researching and writing your essay is going to give you a lot of depth in one specific legal area. That’s effectively a head-start on an exam essay, dissertation, or interviews/applications, because you’ll be able to effectively and engagingly advance an argument in the law. Thus, it’s important to make sure you apply the knowledge gained by entering the prize, which is valuable regardless of whether or not you win an award.