Writing for & Publishing in Law Reviews: Finding & Developing Topics
Updated Oct. 25, 2015.
Prepared by Mary Whisner.
This guide is part of a collection of guides on writing for and publishing in law reviews. This guide is equally applicable to seminar papers.
Finding a topic that is appropriate for a law review article (or a seminar paper) is challenging. The topic needs to be substantial enough to merit 20 or 30 pages of discussion—and yet small enough that you can say something meaningful about it. It needs to be current and interesting enough for editors and readers to want to read it—but not so hot that dozens of journals already have comments ready to go. The topic (or your take on it) should be novel—and yet you want there to be some material published about it so you have something to work with.
Above all, you need a topic that you find interesting and care about enough to work hard on for weeks and months.
This guide begins with a section listing others' advice and then moves on to research techniques and tools you can use to help you find and develop topics:
- Look for legal developments
- Look for circuit splits and novel cases
- Browse recent scholarly publications
- Mine others' topic ideas, including calls for papers and writing competitions
- Talk to people
- Shape your topic
Jessica L. Clark & Kristen E. Murray, Scholarly Writing: Ideas, Examples, and Execution (2d ed. 2012), KF250.C528 2012 at Reference Area
Chapter 2 is "Thinking: Finding Your Topic and Developing Your Thesis."
Elizabeth Fajans & Mary R. Falk, Scholarly Writing for Law Students: Seminar Papers, Law Review Notes and Law Review Competition Papers (4th ed. 2011), KF250.F35 2011 at Reference Area
The chapter "Inspiration: Choosing a Subject and Developing a Thesis," starting at page 14, includes ideas on finding and narrowing a paper topic.
Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting on Law Review (4th ed. 2010), KF250.V6 2010 at Reference Area.
Chapter I "Finding What to Write About (The Claim)," starting at page 10, discusses methods for finding a topic, and includes sections on ensuring that the topic is novel, nonobvious, and that it has utility.
Francis A. Gabor, Guide to Legal Research and Writing from the Transnational Perspective. K85.G33 2008 at Reference Area
The chapter "Guide for the Legal Writing Process," starting at page 53, includes sections dealing with seminar papers, topic selection, and writing techniques.
Ruthann Robson, Law Students as Legal Scholars: An Essay/Review of Scholarly Writing for Law Students and Academic Legal Writing, 7 N.Y. City L. Rev. 195 (2004). HeinOnline | LexisNexis | Westlaw. Compares and criticizes books by Fajans & Falk and by Volokh. Emphasizes that the student writer's passion for his or her subject is of primary importance in topic selection.
Heather Meeker, Stalking the Golden Topic: A Guide to Locating and Selecting Topics for Legal Research Papers, 1996 Utah L. Rev. 917. HeinOnline | LexisNexis | Westlaw.
Includes tips on how to find a topic, different types of topics (traditional and nontraditional), and how to conduct preemption research to determine if the topic you are interested in is the topic of an existing article.
Westlaw, Guide to Law Review Research. A 33-page guide to selecting a topic, conducting a preemption search, developing a topic, checking citations, and related subjects.
Choose a general area that you are interested in (e.g., environmental law, technology and the law, health law and policy), and then spend some time skimming publications to learn about recent developments. Before a case or statute is discussed in law reviews, it is covered in newspapers, legal newsletters, blogs, and other current awareness sources. Coming across a short article about a recent case or proposed legislation may give you an idea for a topic.
Legal newsletters focus on current developments in particular areas of law (e.g., affordable housing, construction, ethics, labor). They are usually published weekly or monthly; some are daily. Articles are usually short and the newsletters may be available in print and online.
Bloomberg BNA publishes newsletters on a wide range of topics. BNA is a UW Restricted database.
|Within a newsletter, you can browse recent issues, browse by topic, or search. You can also search across multiple newsletters.|
BNA, Finding a Topic/Case on Which to Write. A PowerPoint presentation that describes the use of Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) publications for locating topics for notes and comments.
BNA, Locating Paper Topics. Short flyer (PDF) on using BNA's topical newsletters and alert services.
LexisNexis and Westlaw have a variety of newsletters and current awareness databases:
|In Lexis Advance, you can start with a broad search (here it's "patent licensing"), then narrow by choosing, say, Legal News, adding a date restriction, and searching within the results for another term ("pharmaceutical"). Results include articles from legal newspapers and legal newsletters.
|In Lexis.com, choose a topic (such as Patent Law) and choose sources under "Search News."
|LexisNexis licenses many newsletters produced by others (including BNA).
|See LexisNexis, Starting Your Law Review Note This web-based tutorial takes you through using Search Advisor, preemption checking, Mealey's topical newsletters, and updating your research.|
|In WestlawNext, you can search everything or choose to search just newsletters (or newsletters in one subject or one particular newsletter).|
|One way to find newsletters in Westlaw.com is via a topical area (e.g., Environmental Law). Look for Daily Reports & Current Developments and for News & Information.|
|Westlaw licenses many newsletters produced by others (including BNA). It also creates its own. The Westlaw Bulletin, updated daily, contains summaries of recent developments in federal and state judicial, legislative, and administrative law. Westlaw Topical Highlights contain summaries of federal and state decisions and legislative and administrative activities in particular areas of law (e.g., antitrust, family law, maritime law). One page links to both the Bulletins and the Topical Highlights.
Weekly publication cycles enable legal newspapers to report quickly on news about pending or recently decided/settled cases and other current legal issues. Browse headlines for ideas.
Some legal newspapers are available on LexisNexis and Westlaw.
Industry Newsletters & Magazines
In addition to legal news sources, consider industry newsletters: they will often discuss legal issues on the horizon. Many are available on LexisNexis and Westlaw. Databases provided by the University Libraries give you access to material from many fields. For instance, searching for "mobile commerce" in Business Source Complete yields articles from American Banker, Credit Union Journal, Marketing Week, and many other sources.
Thousands of people blog about legal developments. Following a few blogs in an area that interests you can help you stay current and give you topic ideas. Be aware of the different approaches and slants of the bloggers: is the author a journalist, a law professor, a practitioner? Is the author expressing an opinion or reporting fact?
LexisNexis includes selected blogs (Legal > Legal News > Social Media). They can be searched in Lexis Advance.
See the Gallagher guide on Blogs & RSS Feeds.
More Information on Current Awareness Sources
The Gallagher guide on Resources for Keeping Up & Staying Current describes online resources and techniques that UW School of Law faculty and students can use to stay up-to-date with recent research topics. Includes, for example, information on Legal Scholarship Network (LSN) and SmartCILP.
This weekly publication provides current analysis of significant federal and state cases in all practice areas as well as important legislative and regulatory developments.
- To find circuit splits
- circuit* near split* and date after 1/1/2006
- (circuit* near split*) and employment and date after 1/1/2006
- To find recent stories about free speech: free speech [within headings only] and date after 1/1/2012
Use caselaw databases on LexisNexis or Westlaw. Sample searches:
- Westlaw ALLFEDS: sy,di(split conflict /s circuit authority) & da(>2006)
- Westlaw WA-CS: co(low) & "first impression" & da(>2005)
- Westlaw SCT-PETITION (database of petitions for certiorari -- includes petitions that were denied as well as those granted): "employment discrimination" & split /p circuit authority
Browsing recent journals can give you ideas about what topics are hot and how issues are presented.
CILP provides quick access to the contents of more than 550 legal periodicals, either through the Table of Contents or organized within 100 legal subjects. Law review articles are indexed here 4-6 weeks before they are indexed by commercial legal periodical indexes such as LegalTrac or the Index to Legal Periodicals. Note: UW Law faculty and students can subscribe to SmartCILP, a tailored version of CILP that sends you just the articles indexed under the subject headings you choose.
Sometimes authors toss out questions without answering them. For instance
The view [of net neutrality] taken by the Council of Europe suggests that there should be a very strong presumption in favour of banning all discrimination unless it meets the very high threshold of “over-riding public interest”. That would inevitably lead to the question of how could prioritising Internet content ever fall under “over-riding public interest”? Considering that question is well beyond the scope of this article, but provides an interesting angle with which to examine the need for prioritisation.
Darren Read, Net Neutrality and the EU Electronic Communications Regulatory Framework, 20 Int'l J.L. & Info. Tech. 48, 53 (2012).
You can search full-text law reviews on LexisNexis or Westlaw for indications in an article that the author has mentioned an interesting question in need of further research. Try phrases such as "open question," "interesting topic," or "article topic.
Sample search: interesting or intriguing or open or unresolved /s question or issue /s "beyond the scope" and date(>2011)
Casebooks & treatises: Scan the notes in casebooks (and especially recent casebook supplements) for comments that some issue is unresolved. Search treatises online for "open question" and similar phrases. Examples:
As discussed earlier, the United States Supreme Court recently upheld a restriction on the receipt of all publications to a group of 40 highly recalcitrant prisoners in Pennsylvania's supermax prison. Whether or not the reasoning of that decision would apply more broadly to other prisoners in disciplinary confinement remains an open question. However, the justification offered in Beard for the restriction clearly would not apply for inmates in administrative segregation. Inmates are not in that restrictive environment for punishment; therefore, restrictions on receipt of literature should be much more carefully scrutinized
2 Michael B. Mushlin, Rights of Prisoners § 6:16 (4th ed. database updated Oct. 2011) (available on Westlaw) (footnotes omitted).
>An interesting question Glass did not resolve is the status of a patent that issues with a specification that was not enabling as of its filing date but was enabling at the date it issued. In an infringement suit, should the court rule the patent invalid for failure to comply with Section 112? Or should it merely deprive the patent owner of the filing date as the presumptive date of invention in applying the novelty and nonobviousness requirements? The rationale of Glass seems to indicate that the former course should be followed. The applicant should make full enabling disclosure as of the date the specification is filed and should not be allowed to rely upon what others may later publish.
3 Donald S. Chisum, Chisum on Patents § 7.03 (database updated May 2012) (available on LexisNexis) (footnote omitted).
Calls for Papers
A call for papers is an announcement by editors of a journal or organizers of a conference that they are seeking papers on a given theme. Some calls for papers ask authors to send an abstract or proposal; others seek finished papers. Reading the call for papers can give you ideas for topics, whether or not you submit your own paper. And of course, if you do submit a paper, that can be a path to publication. If there is a conference, you could have a chance to present your paper and to interact with other scholars in the field.
The Legal Scholarship Blog lists conferences, symposiums, and calls for papers. You can search by topic, you can use the calendar to find upcoming paper deadlines, or you can simply browse the listings. Posts usually link to the journals' or conferences' websites for more information.
Student Writing Competitions
As with a call for paper, the topic description for a student writing competition can give you valuable ideas. Prizes for these competitions can include cash, publication in a journal, or travel expenses to a conference.
There are a number of lists on the Web. Of the following, the ones with the most competitions listed (as of May 2012) are those from the ABA and the University of Idaho.
ABA Law Student Division, Writing & Essay Contests and Other Competitions (lists ABA-sponsored competitions and selected competitions from other organizations)
Lewis & Clark Law School, Law Student Writing Competitions & Associated Scholarships
University of Arkansas School of Law Legal Research and Writing Program, Legal Writing Competitions Blog
University of Idaho College of Law, Legal Writing Competitions (lists competitions by deadline and by subject) [link broken; not found elsewhere at this site, 6/9/15]
University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Writing Competitions (includes tips as well as listing competitions)
University of Oregon School of Law, Writing Competitions
University of Richmond School of Law, Essay Competitions for Law Students
Western New England School of Law, Law Student Writing Competitions (lists competitions by subject)
As you develop your topic, you will find it helpful to talk to your professors and to lawyers you have worked with. You will find the conversations are more constructive if you have already done some work. If you were Prof. Pundit, how would you respond to these two students?
- Student 1: "Hi, Professor Pundit! I was in your Constitutional Law class last spring. Now I have to write a paper and I wonder if you could give me a topic. Is there anything interesting in constitutional law?"
- Student 2: "Hi, Professor Pundit. Thanks for meeting with me. As I said in my email message, I'm trying to work up a topic related to the reach of the commerce power. I don't want to tackle the Affordable Care Act case, but I think there have been some interesting developments in other areas. Could I talk to you about a couple of 9th Circuit cases I've been thinking about?"
Use your contacts. Go to professors and others to help you with your ideas. But go prepared; don't expect them to hand you a perfect topic.
As you conduct research and think more about your topic, you may find that you need to adjust it somehow. The ideas listed below are not exhaustive: they're just meant to help you think about how you can change your topic (without abandoning it).
Ways to broaden topics
- Add one or more jurisdictions. Instead of discussing only Washington law, survey statutes or cases from around the country. Instead of discussing an issue in Thailand alone, discuss the issue in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
- Look a little more widely. In addition to discussing the rights of subjects in academic research in psychology, think human subjects review in all academic research. Or go even broader and add the rights of subjects in clinical drug trials.
- Increase the time span you cover. Discuss how a doctrine has developed over the last several decades, not the last several years.
- Define your issue more broadly. In addition to discussing jurors' use of Twitter, discuss jurors' use of all social media. In addition to commenting on one case, discuss several cases that address related issues.
- Add analysis from legal theorists. In addition to discussing the legal doctrine, add a discussion based on feminism, critical race theory, or law and economics.
- Add a perspective from another field. In addition to discussing the legal doctrine, add perspective from social sciences, philosophy, or public health.
Ways to narrow topics
- Limit the jurisdictions. Instead of covering all of American law, choose one, two, or a few states. Instead of covering all of East Asia, choose one country.
- Break out one issue from several you have been considering and focus on that. Instead of looking at all the possible challenges to the Affordable Care Act, focus on one.
- Find a smaller issue within the general area of your interest. Instead of racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system, think of racial disproportionality in sentencing for misdemeanors in one jurisdiction. Instead of looking at special education across the board, focus on special education for children with learning disabilities or children who are deaf.
- Narrow the time span you cover. Instead of looking at everything that's happened to a doctrine since the Industrial Revolution, can you focus on the last decade?
Ways to differentiate your paper, if others have written on the topic
- Take a different position. Critique the other writers' analyses. Propose a new solution.
- Extend the argument. Apply the law to new situations.
- Update the material. Have later cases interpreted the statute or applied the key case? Has the legislature responded to the problem?
Writing for & Publishing in Law Reviews series
- General Information
- (this guide)
- Preemption Checking
- Submitting Manuscripts (includes tips on abstracts)
- Where to Publish (includes information on law review rankings)
Other Gallagher Guides for Writers & Editors
- Bluebook 101
- Cite-Checking & Library Research (for editors and staff)
- Legal & General Writing Resources series
- Legal Dictionaries
- Research & Writing Strategy for a Seminar Paper (PowerPoint slideshow)
- Word Tips to Make Your Life Easier