How to Choose a Paper Topic

This research guide is designed for law students who are writing a substantive legal research paper and are looking for guidance on how to begin. The guide details sources for help in selecting a paper topic and offers insight in how to check whether your paper will add new information to the field of law.

Sources for help in selecting a paper topic
Picking a topic can be the hardest part of writing a substantial paper. In choosing a topic, it may be helpful to consider what subjects, classes, or activities you already enjoy and whether an appropriate topic can be developed from them.
Questions to consider in choosing a paper topic
  • What classes do you enjoy most in law school?
  • What law school organizations do you belong to and what projects were rewarding or useful?
  • What were your undergraduate major and minor? 
  • What projects from your summer legal employment were interesting?
  • What news stories have you heard lately that troubled you?
  • What areas of law would you like to practice in?

Circuit Splits

Another good way to generate a topic is to look at how different jurisdictions have treated a particular issue. To do this you can examine splits between the circuit courts, in which federal appellate courts from different jurisdictions have disagreed on an important federal question.

Bloomberg BNA U.S. Law Week
U.S. Law Week is published weekly by Bloomberg BNA.  It includes information on important cases handed down each week and current legal developments. It also has a monthly "Circuit Splits" Feature (the link is under the Key Features heading on the left side of the page). This resource is available to students and faculty of the College of Law on campus and remotely with an ASURITE ID and password. 
The Splits Circuit blog is written by A. Benjamin Spencer, a law professor at Washington & Lee University School of Law. Spencer tracks developments concerning splits among the federal circuit courts.  This blog has not been updated since January 2013, but the analyses before then may prove interesting.

Current Awareness Resources

Resources that track and analyze current events and developments in the legal world may also provide topic ideas.
Up to the minute events are best monitored using electronic current awareness resources. Westlaw, LexisNexis, and other internet resources such as blogs provide daily updates on developments in each branch of government.

News Directory (Westlaw username and password required)From the WestlawNext News Directory you can search news by type, by jurisdiction, by topic, and by industry.

Lexis Advance
News Directory (Lexis Advance username and password required)
A replacement for LexisNexis's News Directory feature is in the works.  Currently you can search for legal news from the Lexis Advance homepage by selecting "News" or "Legal News" as content types to search for.
ABA Journal Blawg Directory
This comprehensive directory of continually updated law blogs allows browsing by topic, author type, region, and law school.
Justia Blawg Search
Justia has a listing of over 6,000 law blogs which have been organized in to 75 categories.
Law Professor Blogs Network
This is a centralized website for the network of law professor blogs, which are blogs devoted to particular legal subjects written by law professors.
The Supreme Court of the United States Blog provides comprehensive coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court and a wide-ranging array of resources related to Supreme Court cases.
9th Circuit Blog
This blog offers commentary and summaries of cases before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Arizona Appellate Blog
The Arizona Appellate Blog reviews opinions in civil cases from the Arizona Supreme Court and Arizona Court of Appeals.
Other Online Resources is the official website of the Library of Congress and covers the latest developments in Congress. It also offers information on bills, resolutions, treaties, and presidential nominations, as well as provides access to roll call votes, the Congressional Record, and committee reports.
National Conference of State Legislatures
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides research and assistance to state policymakers. The NCSL website offers information and discussion on issues before state legislatures. 
American Constitution Society Research Link
The American Constitution Society collects legal research topics submitted by practitioners for law students to explore in faculty-supervised writing projects for academic credit.
Westlaw Guide to Law Review Research (PDF)
This document explains how to use Westlaw resources to select a topic for an academic paper, perform a preemption check, develop a topic, and check citations.
LexisNexis Starting Your Law Review Note
This tutorial explains how to use LexisNexis resources to select a topic for an academic paper, perform a preemption check, and update research.

Books and Articles
Fajans, Elizabeth & Mary R. Falk. "Inspiration: Choosing a Subject and Developing a Thesis," in Scholarly Writing for Law Students: Seminar Papers, Law Review Notes, and Law Review Competition Papers, 3rd ed. (2005)
Law Study Skills Collection KF250 .F35 2005

Volokh, Eugene. "The Initial Step: Choosing a Claim," in Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, and Seminar Papers, 4th ed. (2010) 
Law Study Skills Collection KF250 .V65 2010

Meeker, Heather. "Stalking the Golden Topic: A Guide to Locating and Selecting Topics for Legal Research Papers," 1996 Utah Law Review 917 (1996)
Available on HeinOnline

Delgado, Richard. "How to Write a Law Review Article," 20 Univ. San Francisco Law Review 445 (1986)
Available on HeinOnline

Eugene Volokh, "Writing a Student Article," 48 Journal of Legal Education 247 (1998)
Available on HeinOnline

Preemption Check:  Checking Whether Your Paper Topic Adds New Information to the Field of Law

Why conduct a preemption check
Before starting to research and write on your chosen topic you must determine whether that topic has already been covered, or preempted, by another author. If your topic has not been addressed you can safely pursue your research and writing. If your topic has been addressed you may still be able to pursue it, if you concentrate on a different aspect of the topic or present a new perspective.   
How to conduct a preemption check
When conducting a preemption check you need to search for articles on your topic using a variety of resources, including indexes to legal journal articles, full-text databases, and working papers depositories. If your topic is interdisciplinary you should also check indexes to journal articles in other subjects. Starting with a list of terms on your topic will be helpful as you conduct your preemption check – consider the subjects your topic may be categorized under and any synonyms for terms on your list. As you search the various resources listed below, be sure to keep track of where you have searched, the search queries you made, and your search results. This will help you avoid duplicate searching and ensure that you did a thorough preemption check. Consider also working through the Preemption Checking CALI Exercise for further explanation of the process of conducting a preemption check.

Indexes to Legal Journal Articles
An index is a database of article citations arranged by subject. When searching in an index you are led to citations of relevant articles, and you then use those citations to locate the full-text of the article.
LegalTrac provides citations to articles from 1980 to the present from over 1,500 legal journals, magazines, and newspapers.
Index to Legal Periodicals Retrospective
The Index to Legal Periodicals Retrospective contains citations to articles from over 750 legal periodicals published between 1908 and 1981.
Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals
The Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals contains articles published from 1985 to the present which focus on international, comparative, or foreign law topics, or are written in other languages.

Resources for Multidisciplinary Journal Articles

Academic Search Premier
Academic Search Premier indexes over 8,500 journals from 1975 to the present and covers most areas of academic study.
JSTOR is a full-text archive of over 1,000 academic journals in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Full-Text Article Databases
Full-text databases contain the entire text of articles and thus allow you to search every word in an article.

HeinOnline has about 1,600 journals in its law journal library and unlike Westlaw and LexisNexis has coverage beginning with the first issue published.   All articles in HeinOnline are available in their original format in pdf. 
Westlaw Law Reviews and Journals
Lexis Advance

Working Papers Depositories
Working papers depositories house research papers in development.

Social Science Research Network (SSRN)
The SSRN eLibrary contains abstracts and downloadable full-text versions of working papers.
Ask Your Law Librarians
If you cannot locate the above sources or if you would like a demonstration on how to use them, stop by the reference office or email a reference librarian. If you need advice on how to proceed with your research, please make an appointment with a reference librarian.  We are here to help you!

last updated 8/2014

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