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Journal Staff Research Guide

A guide to help law journal staff members with the process of writing and editing law journal articles.

Introduction

If you are writing a student article for a law journal and need help finding a topic, this part of the guide will:

  • provide an overview of common types of articles that students typically write,
  • help you understand what makes a good topic, and
  • walk you through the process of finding a good topic.

Common types of student articles

These are the most common types of articles that students write, and they are the types of articles that tend to be most useful to practicing attorneys and judges. Keep these article types in mind as you search for your topic:

Circuit Splits or Jurisdictional Conflicts

Discusses a legal issue that two or more jurisdictions disagree about and provides a recommendation for how the disagreement should be resolved. The jurisdictions in disagreement might be federal appellate courts, state appellate courts, or state supreme courts.

Law reform article

Argues that a legal rule or institution is bad—has evil consequences, is inequitable, or unfair. The article shows how to change the rule or institution to avoid these problems.

Impact article

Applies existing law to new facts or a new law to existing facts and examines the results, often emphasizing unexpected effects that may occur.

Legislative note

Analyzes proposed or recently enacted legislation, often section by section, offering comments, criticisms, and sometimes suggestions for improvement.

Case note

Focuses on critiquing a single case, often one you believe is representative of a particular legal regime, and offers alternative legal or policy solutions to the problem that the case presents.

More Ideas

These are not the only types of articles that students write, however. For more ideas, see:

For advice on types of student articles to avoid, see:

What makes a good topic?

Good legal scholarship makes a claim that is original and useful. You should also pick a topic that is not too broad and is interesting to you. Let's look at each of those elements in more detail:

Makes a claim

You want to avoid writing an article that explains what the law is without identifying a problem and offering a solution, or an article that identifies a problem but does not offer a solution. When selecting a topic, you don't necessarily have to know exactly what your claim is going to be before you start researching and writing, but you should pick a topic that you feel reasonably confident you will be able to make a claim about.

Original

Your article should have something new to say, that hasn't already been said in another law journal article. The problem you are addressing does not have to be new or never previously discussed—your article may be original for other reasons. Perhaps you are able to offer a new analysis, new perspective, or a new proposed solution.

Useful

The problem you are addressing in your article should be important. A problem might be important because it has a broad impact, or is of interest to a broad audience, or is useful to practitioners and judges. There are a lot of different ways to define important. As you are thinking about topics, ask your self does this feel important? Or who would this be important to?

Not too broad

One difficulty with writing a student article is that your audience (professors and practicing lawyers) is typically more experienced and knowledgeable than you are. If you pick a topic that is sufficiently narrow, you will be able to thoroughly research your topic and become an expert in a short period of time. For more guidance on narrowing your topic, see Elizabeth Fajans & Mary R Falk, Scholarly Writing for Law Students (5th ed. 2017), at page 23.

Interesting

Finally, you should of course pick a topic that is personally interesting to you! You will spend many hours researching and writing about your topic. If it doesn't really interest you, this will be a painful process.

How to find a good topic

 

Table overview of topic selections resources including: Interests and Experiences, People, Circuit Splits, State Jurisdictional Conflicts, News Stories, Petitions for Certiorari, Case Law, and Law Review Articles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interests & experiences

Think about whether your personal interests and experiences point you in the direction of a topic idea. Some questions to ask yourself: Why did you become interested in the law? What appeals to you about your summer jobs or elective courses? What did you study before law school, and has studying the law changed your perspective on that subject? What kind of law do you want to practice after law school? This initial brainstorming should help point you toward a general topic (for example, water law or artificial intelligence) that you can dive into further using the resources listed here.

People

Once you have identified a general topic that interests you, talk to experts in that area. Find a professor who teaches in that subject and ask about jurisdictional conflicts, emerging legal issues, or other ideas for an article topic. You should also talk to practicing attorneys and judges if possible. Reach out to supervisors and mentors from your summer jobs, internships, and externships.

Circuit Splits

If you are looking for a circuit split to write about, use these resources from the Bloomberg Law Review Resources page:

  • Circuit Splits Chart: provides a list of all circuit splits recently reported in U.S. Law Week
  • Circuit Splits Court Opinion Search: provides a list of federal court opinions that mention circuit splits. (Research tip: sort the list of search results by date instead of relevancy to ensure you are looking at the most recent opinions)

State Jurisdictional Conflicts

If you are looking for a state jurisdictional conflict to write about, use these resources to browse for topics of interest and discover how different states address similar issues (for example, cannabis laws):

News

Look for current or emerging legal issues in legal news, legal blogs, national news, and industry newsletters:

Petitions for Certiorari

Petitions for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court are based on important federal legal questions or circuit court splits, but the court only grants review for about 4 percent of petitions. Reviewing petitions that have been denied can be a good way to locate legal issues that were important enough to appeal to the Supreme Court, but are unlikely to be resolved soon given that the court denied review.

Locate denied petitions using the United States Supreme Court Actions database on Westlaw. Search for (deny! OR deni!) /s certiorari and use the date filters to locate recent denials.

Case Law

When courts are dealing with a legal issue that their jurisdiction has never addressed before, they typically refer to it as an "issue of first impression." Searching for court opinions, especially trial court opinions, that contain this phrase can be a good way to locate new and unsettled areas of law.

Search for (issue OR question OR matter) /5 "first impression" in the cases or state trial court orders databases on Westlaw or Lexis. Use date and practice area filters to locate recent and relevant results.

If you find an interesting issue of first impression, be sure to check the subsequent case history to determine whether the case has been appealed and whether an appellate court has settled the issue.

Law review articles

Law review articles will often mention in passing interesting legal issues that the article does not actually address. This can be a good source for topic ideas—you could be the one to write an article on that interesting open question.

To find legal issues raised but not addressed in law journal articles, search within the law journal databases on Westlaw and Lexis for (interesting OR intriguing OR open) /s (issue OR question OR topic) /p ("beyond the scope" OR "another day"). Filter the results by date to find issues raised in recently published articles.

Next steps in the topic selection process

 

Graphic showing the four steps of the topic selection process, which are described in detail below.

 

Step 1: Find a topic that interests you (using the strategies and resources suggested above). This is often the most difficult part of writing a scholarly article! However, once you find a topic your work is not done. There are some additional steps that you should take before committing to a particular topic.

 

Step 2: Once you have found a topic that you would like to write about, do some quick initial research to assess the topic's potential. Ask yourself:

  • Does it have the characteristics of a good topic?
  • Is there enough raw material on this topic for you to analyze?
  • Is the issue sufficiently complex to justify writing an article about it?
  • After learning more, does the issue still seem interesting and important?
  • Is the topic so broad that it will be difficult to research and write within the timeline you are working with?

It's better to ask these questions now and drop a topic that is not going to work out than to decide two or three months into writing that there is a major problem with your topic and it has to be abandoned.

 

Step 3: Once you have determined that your topic has potential, it's time to do a thorough preemption check to make sure your article is publishable. See the section of this guide on Preemption Checks for a detailed guidance on completing this step.

 

Step 4: If you have found a good topic, determined that it has potential, and confirmed it has not been preempted, THEN you are ready to start researching and writing your article using the articles that you find in the preemption check process.

Expert advice

For additional advice and information on finding a topic, see: