Critical Legal Thinking


Critical Legal Thinking is a curricular unit on arguing and thinking critically in and about law. Its focus is on how to identify, reconstruct, and evaluate legal arguments: real legal arguments - arguments presented by courts in actual cases - rather than hypothetical or "academic" ones.


The main goal is to teach students the building blocks of legal argumentation - from the basic conceptual apparatus required to analyse and understand normative legal positions, through the identification, elaboration, and assessment of valid arguments, on to a working understanding of the distinctive features of legal argumentation.


The unit is dedicated to developing skills that will enable students to engage analytically and critically with primary and secondary legal materials in general, and with legal arguments. Such skills will be important to students nor only as they progress through their degree, but also beyond the formal stages of their legal education.


By the end of Critical Legal Thinking, students will be able to: (a) analyse complex legal situations in terms of fundamental legal conceptions; (b) understand the elements of argument analysis and reconstruction (recognising and reconstructing arguments, identifying their premises and conclusions, critically assessing them for validity, soundness, and other properties); (c) understand the different kinds of reasons that can play a role in the justification of conclusions of law, and their inferential role in legal arguments; and (d) apply this knowledge and understanding in the critical evaluation of real-life (and especially judicial) legal arguments.

General characterization





Responsible teacher

Luís Duarte de Almeida


Weekly - 4.5

Total - 54

Teaching language



Not Applicable


There is no set textbook for this unit. There will be detailed reading lists, made available at the start of term, specifying both recommended and supplementary readings for each of the unit's modules. But those lists cannot be given here, because they exceed the number of characters that the University's online system is programmed to accept.


Should any students still wish to buy a book to work from, the one good choice is Martin P. Golding, Legal Reasoning (updated edition, Broadview Press 2001). It is a short and relatively inexpensive book, and the best of its kind. It does not even come close, however, to covering this unit's topics either in their entirety or in the relevant degree of specificity.

Teaching method

Interactive classes with constant student participation. Each week will combine one 1.5-hour class dedicated to exploring some relevant notions and concepts, and one 3-hour class dedicated to collectively analysing and discussing examples of good and bad arguments taken from actual judicial decisions. At the start of term, students will be provided with a document containing all the materials and questions that will be discussed during the full term. They will be asked to have read the relevant materials in advance of each class.

Evaluation method

Final written exam (3 hours).


Towards the end of the semester, students will have the opportunity to both (a) sit an in-class written test with a number of short questions covering all of the unit's contents, and (b) hand in written answers to a set of take-home questions released 1 day before the submission deadline. Students who take both these assessment elements and obtain an overall pass grade will be exempt from the final exam, in which case that will be their final grade (with the possible addition of 0.5 marks, as specified in the next paragraph). The written test will be worth 60% and the take-home questions 40% of this grade.


There will also be a mid-term optional formative assessment: a short written test comprising 10 multiple-choice questions covering the contents covered in class thus far. Students who choose to take it and who answer all questions correctly will be awarded 0.5 marks, to be added to the final grade mentioned in the previous paragraph.


For students who are exempt from the final exam and still decide to take it, their final grade will be the higher of (a) the grade obtained in the final exam, and (b) the average of the grade obtained in the final exam and their summative in-class grade.

Subject matter

Part (and Module) 1 | Introduction: What Is an Argument?



Part (and Module) 2 | Fundamental Legal Concepts


This Module introduces students to - and teaches them how to fruitfully use - a revised version of Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld's important and very helpful analytical scheme of fundamental legal positions, in terms of which any complex legal situation can in principle be comprehensively analysed.


Students will acquaint themselves with the two basic "families" of legal normative concepts: (a) the first-order family of duties, claim-rights, liberties, and no-rights; and (b) the higher-order family of powers, liabilities, disabilities, and immunities. They will learn how the four concepts within each family can be arranged into pairs of correlatives and contradictories, paying special attention to the distinction between claim-rights and liberties and to its implications for legal argumentation; and learn also how to apply the framework to a variety of legal problems as they come up in actual legal cases.



Part 3 | The Elements of Argumentation


This Part begins to provide students with the tools to analyse, reconstruct, and evaluate other people's arguments, and to formulate their own. The focus is on deductive arguments and on the notions of argumentative validity and soundness.


This Part pays special attention to (a) conditional statements and their uses in argumentation, (b) the difference between sufficient and necessary conditions, (c) some basic valid argument patterns (including modus ponens, modus tollens, the hypothetical syllogism, and the disjunctive syllogism), (d) some formal fallacies (including the fallacies of denying the antecedent and affirming the consequent); and (e) some informal fallacies (including the fallacy of begging the question - also known as "petitio principii" - the straw man fallacy, and false dichotomies).


There are three thematic Modules in this Part:


  • Module 3: Deductive Arguments
  • Module 4: Formal Fallacies
  • Module 5: Informal Fallacies



Part 4 | Legal Arguments and Reasons


This Part focuses on the main specific features of legal arguments. It introduces and discusses the so-called "legal syllogism", and considers the different ways in which the premises of legal arguments can be justified and challenged. Students will also learn about (a) some central features of the practice of reason giving, (b) the role of authority - practical as well as theoretical - in legal argumentation, (c) arguments about legal interpretation, (d) arguments by analogy, and (e) the argumentative role of coherence and legal principles.


There are six thematic modules in this Part:


  • Module 6: The "Legal Syllogism"
  • Module 7: Giving Reasons: An Overview
  • Module 8: Arguing from Authority
  • Module 9: Arguing about Authority
  • Module 10: Arguing beyond Authority (I): Analogy
  • Module 11: Arguing beyond Authority (II): Coherence and Principles


Programs where the course is taught: