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Legal analysis 101: A complete guide

Legal Analysis 101 Complete Guide
Understanding FIRAC — Facts, Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion — empowers professionals to approach legal analysis effectively.

Ah, legal analysis. It’s the lifeblood of the profession and something, quite frankly, that those of us who went to law school take for granted. After all, legal analysis was drilled into our brains every day for three years straight.

This post, however, is intended for those valued non-JD colleagues of ours who are often called upon to assist with critical analyses. From legal assistants to paralegals, your firm will simply run better if everyone has a grasp on the fundamentals of legal analysis. 

This post begins with an explanation of FIRAC – the tried-and-true system for analyzing any legal issue. And, just for good measure, we’ll close with some basic principles on how to find, interpret, and understand the laws that impact your clients’ cases.

Understanding legal analysis

Simply put, legal analysis is the process of breaking down legal issues to understand their implications and reach a reasoned conclusion about the matter you’re working on.

It’s fundamental to the practice of law, particularly in civil litigation practices, where complex cases often require in-depth examination and interpretation of statutes and case law.

As we’ll discuss below, legal analysis involves multiple components. It starts with understanding the facts of your particular case and the issue that led your client to seek out legal counsel.

From there, it moves through the interpretation of relevant statutes and case law, and concludes with a logical application of legal principles to your facts. This step-by-step process helps you build strong arguments and anticipate opposing views.

So, how do you put it all together? Let’s dive in:

The framework: FIRAC

The FIRAC method is a common framework used in legal analysis. It stands for Facts, Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. This method provides a structured approach to analyzing legal issues, making it easier to break down complex cases and derive meaningful conclusions. 

To illustrate how this method works, we’re going to use the example of a client who came to your firm after being injured when he tripped over a crack in the sidewalk of a city-owned park. He wants to know if he can sue the city and force it to pay for his injuries.

Facts

The first step in the FIRAC method is identifying the key facts of a case. Facts are the specific events, circumstances, or pieces of evidence that form the basis of the legal issue. 

When a client comes to you with a legal problem, they often want to tell you about their situation in excruciating detail. One of your first orders of business will be to sort out and review all relevant facts.

This may include your client’s own statements, as well as additional details from witnesses, documents, and physical evidence. This step requires careful attention to detail to ensure that no critical information is overlooked.

It also involves determining which facts aren’t relevant to your client’s case. 

In our example case, you’ll want to understand everything relating to your client’s fall. How deep was the crack in the sidewalk? Are there pictures of the crack? Were there signs warning of uneven pavement? Did anyone witness the fall? Has anyone else been injured by tripping over that particular crack? If so, when?

Irrelevant facts might include things like the color shirt your client was wearing at the time of the fall, what your client had for breakfast that day, or the fact that Mercury was in retrograde.

Issue

Once the facts are established, the next step is to identify the central legal issue(s) or question(s) that are going to impact your client’s outcome. This involves determining what legal principles or rules are at stake based on the facts.

Often, this step requires distilling complex information into a clear and concise legal question. The issue should be specific enough to guide further analysis but broad enough to encompass all relevant aspects of the case.

Turning back to our example, one issue will almost certainly be “was the crack in the sidewalk a ‘dangerous condition’ that the city needed to protect its citizens from?” 

Note here that cases often involve multiple issues. Although the same facts may impact various issues, you’ll want to address each issue separately. To keep things simple, we’ll only address one issue in our sample case.

Rule

In the rule step, you’ll need to identify the laws that govern the issue at hand. This may involve referencing statutory law, case law, or other legal doctrines. 

Understanding the rule is crucial because it provides the legal framework for analyzing the issue. The rules should be presented clearly, with appropriate citations and explanations, to ensure accuracy.

In our example case, both statutes and case law will supply the relevant rules. For example, California Government Code §830 gives us the definition of a “dangerous condition” on public property. The case of Fielder v. City of Glendale (among others) gives us a great framework for determining whether public sidewalk cracks are or are not dangerous as a matter of law.

Application

The application step is where the legal analysis truly comes to life. In this step, you’ll apply the identified rules to the facts of your client’s case. This involves examining how the rules govern the specific situation and what legal outcomes they suggest. 

The application step is often the most complex, as it requires drawing logical connections between the rules and the facts. This is also where legal reasoning plays a significant role. Remember, it’s your job to construct a persuasive argument based on the application of rules to facts.

Here’s what an analysis might look like in our example case:

Our client was injured when he fell over a ½ inch crack in the sidewalk while walking through City Park. 

Government Code §830 defines a “dangerous condition” as “a condition of property that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial or insignificant) risk of injury when such property … is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.” 

In the case of Fielder v. City of Glendale, the court determined that a three-quarter-inch depression in the sidewalk that caused the plaintiff to fall was not dangerous as a matter of law.

Our client fell while using the sidewalk in the manner for which it was intended – taking a casual walk. Given that the crack our client tripped over was smaller than that at issue in Fielder, it is unlikely that a court would find the crack to be a “dangerous condition” under California law.

Obviously, this is a terribly simplified analysis, but hopefully, you get the picture.

FIRAC conclusion

The final step in the FIRAC method is the conclusion. Here, you’ll summarize your analysis and provide a clear answer to the legal issue. The conclusion should be concise, addressing the key points of the analysis and presenting a logical outcome.

It’s important to ensure that the conclusion is supported by the previous steps and that it aligns with established legal principles.

Brevity is the key here. Often, the partner who assigned the analysis will turn right to your conclusion section to get an overview of the situation prior to talking to your client. This is where she wants a quick answer – not another full analysis.

Returning to our example, the conclusion might read something like this: “Based on current statutes and prevailing California case law, it is unlikely that the crack our client tripped over in City Park would be considered a ‘dangerous condition’ that the city needed to protect its citizens from.”

So, there you have it – legal analysis in a nutshell. Before we let you go, however, let’s talk about some of the common issues that arise when you’re looking for the rules that will govern your case.

Finding and interpreting rules

For beginners, finding and interpreting the rules that apply to a given case can be a bit daunting. Here are some tips that will keep you on the right path:

To effectively interpret statutes, follow a systematic approach. Start by reading the statute thoroughly to understand its literal meaning. If the meaning isn’t clear, look for other sources like case law, legislative history, or even expert commentary for additional context.

When it comes to case law, also known as judicial precedent, you’ll be using previous court decisions as authoritative guidance for determining how courts in your jurisdiction might resolve your client’s case.

In our legal system, courts generally follow the principle of “stare decisis,” which means that they tend to respect previous decisions and use them as a basis for resolving current cases. This principle helps maintain consistency and predictability in the legal system.

That said, some prior cases are simply better for your client’s case than others. Here’s what you want to look for:

  • Jurisdiction: Case law from the same jurisdiction as the current case is typically more useful.
  • Court Hierarchy: Higher court decisions generally carry more weight than lower court decisions.
  • Similarity of Facts: Cases with similar facts are more likely to be relevant to the current case.
  • Legal Issues: Identifying cases with comparable legal issues helps to understand how courts may rule in your matter.

Additionally – and I can’t stress this enough – you have to stay updated on recent legal developments and court decisions that might impact your client’s case. If there’s a statute or case that is particularly useful, you want to follow it closely. Set up a Google Alert or some similar mechanism that will keep you updated.

Conclusion

Legal analysis, as discussed through the FIRAC method, is crucial not only for lawyers but for all legal professionals who contribute to a case.

Understanding the fundamental aspects of FIRAC—Facts, Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion—empowers legal teams to dissect complex legal scenarios effectively, ensuring that all relevant details are considered and applied correctly

I hope this guide has underscored the importance of each component in the legal analytical process and offered you some practical, actionable insights. So, there you have it. Whether you’re enjoying your first week in your new law firm or simply brushing up on your analytical skills, we hope this guide helps you help your clients.

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