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NEED A RESEARCH TOPIC?

I. Finding a Topic

IA. What's Pending in the Courts?

IB. What's In the News?

IC. Who Has Written About What Topic?

ID. But I'm Not Sure I Want to Spend Weeks Writing in the Subject Area. Where Can I Find General Information?

IE. I Really Like the Internet. Can't I Use That to Find a Good Topic?

IF. I Don't Like Any of These Choices! Where Else Can I Look?

II. Doing the Preliminary Research on Your Chosen Topic

IIA. Don't Reinvent the Wheel!

IIB. Ugh! Remember FIrst Year Legal Research and Writing?

 

IIC. What's Hot and What's Not!

III. Live Dangerously: Choose a Foreign, Comparative or International Law Topic

 

During your law school career you will have to write at least one research paper, either a law review note, an independent study paper or a seminar paper. One of the most difficult things involved in writing such a paper is choosing the topic, which must offer you the chance to do some original research into law. But the legal issue you examine must also be narrow enough so that you can finish your work within the stated amount of time, and still do a good job.

I. Finding a Topic

 

 

IA. What's Pending in the Courts?

Good places to look for a research topic that might have an interesting legal issue for you to examine are current cases pending before the Supreme Court (before the Court decides them, of course!), cases similar on their facts but decided differently in the federal appellate courts (this is called a "split" in the circuits), and cases pending before state supreme and appellate courts. Many of these cases are discussed in the practitioner legal journals such as National Law Journal, the American Lawyer, and U. S. Law Week, all of which are available in the Law Library, and the more specialized practictioner journals.

IB. What's In the News?

Current newspapers can be a good source of topics. Remember, however, that journalists are not usually lawyers, and are writing for a lay audience, so they may simplify the law and/or issues involved. You will need to do some additional research to determine whether a case written up in a newspaper or magazine is really a good topic for a paper or whether it is just fodder for the media (of course it might be both). The Legal Times of Washington is a legal newspaper with many interesting stories; the Baton Rouge Advocate and New Orleans Times-Picayune regularly cover legal topics, just as other city papers do. You can also find legal topics to write about in the non-legal sections of the paper, such as the New York Times' science and medicine section for example (it appears on Tuesdays).

IC. Who Has Written About What Topic?

Another place to check is a periodical index. Periodical indexes will tell you what the "hot topics" are in various fields, and you can quickly determine whether a topic is already over-researched and over-written. If it is, you will very likely be unable to write anything very original on the topic at this stage in your legal career unless you have a great deal of background in the area. For example, someone with a nursing degree might be able to do research and write on a medical topic from a practical as well as theoretical point of view in a way that legal writers with less or no medical background cannot. Periodical indexes available in the Law Library are the Current Law Index and the Index to Legal Periodicals, both of which are available in print, on CDROM and on LEXIS and WESTLAW.

Finally, don't forget to ask the reference librarians for some assistance. The Law Library staff regularly produces both "pathfinders" (guides to legal research in general areas) and "quick bibs" (short bibliographies on specific topics) that can give you some ideas for a paper or law review note. Some recent "quick bib" topics include flag burning, genetic testing, school violence, internet filtering and sexual misconduct in the U.S. military. Don't forget that you don't have to pick a traditional legal topic, either: what about the image of the public defender in the movies? or an analysis of the Critical Legal Studies movement?

ID. But I'm Not Sure I Want to Spend Weeks Writing in the Subject Area. Where Can I Find General Information?

Other places to look include the library guides (often called "pathfinders" and "bibliographies") available on the Web and in the "free table" area in the Law Library.

IE. I Really Like the Internet. Can't I Use That to Find a Good Topic?

 

The Internet (World Wide Web) is a very popular place to look for research topics; all you have to do is choose a search engine, type in some key words, and start looking. What you will find on various subjects will be of varying quality. Check out who published the information, what his/her/its credentials are, and how often the information is updated, at a minimum, to make certain you don't latch onto an eccentric or totally wrong headed view of a topic. You can mine some websites such as JURIST: The Law Professors' Network or media websites such as CNN for ideas. Many academic law libraries have also put their bibliographies and pathfinders on the web as well.

IF. I Don't LIke Any of These Choices! Where Else Can I Look?

Remember that people can sometimes be your best source for a topic if you really want to write in a specific area but are having trouble finding a narrow legal issue. People familiar with an area of law can also help you decide whether the topic is still fresh and if not, what you can do to update it. Ask the library staff for assistance or  for other ideas. Also, ask your professor, especially if s/he has not given your class a list of acceptable or suggested topics. And always make sure your professor approves your topic.

Finally, remember that identifying a research topic is not the same thing as formulating the hypothesis you will need to structure your paper. Saying that you want to write a paper on individuals' use of cell phones while driving is not the same thing as saying that you are writing on the existing and potential liability of a Louisiana driver who is the proximate cause of a vehicular accident or that the state or federal government should move to limit cell phone use in moving vehicles for the same health and safety reasons that have mandated the use of seat belts and other safety devices. Since Louisiana has a voluntary motorcycle helmet law, should it reasonably prohibit motorcycle operators from using cell phones while they drive? Interesting question....

Other guides to finding a topic (Many of these are written for college students, but they still have useful information and tips).

Law Research: The Internet Law Library

Library Starter Kit

A Research Guide for Students

II. Doing the Preliminary Research on Your Chosen Topic

IIA. Don't Reinvent the Wheel!

The easiest way to short cut the process of legal research on a topic is to see if someone has already done some preliminary research. Law libraries provide many guides to topical and jurisdictional research that should be helpful to you. If you cannot find a guide already prepared, check the periodical indexes to see if someone has published a guide on your topic or in your subject area. Also check the online catalog to see if there is a book published on the subject or that includes the subject.

IIB. Ugh! Remember FIrst Year Legal Research and Writing?

Your first year legal research and writing text (you kept that, didn't you!) has a lot of information that may make much more sense to you now than it did first year; check the index for research assistance and tips on your topic. Remember, though, that guides in print, particularly those in book form, age quickly unless they are in looseleaf format. Even then, they don't necessarily reflect the latest articles and cases in an area.

IIC. What's Hot and What's Not!

The Internet is another place to find research guides; the best ones are generally published by governmental and reputable nongovernmental organizations, and law librarians. Michael Geist's online web series is also helpful as is the Nolo Press site.

III. Live Dangerously: Choose a Foreign, Comparative or International Law Topic

If you would like to write on a foreign legal topic, note that all the subjects that you are already familiar with from your U.S. and Louisiana legal studies are also covered in foreign jurisdictions, although the areas of law may not have the same names. If you need to familiarize yourself with  foreign legal systems, try some of the general introductions such as John Henry Merryman, The Civil Law Tradition (2d ed., 1985) or R. C. van Caenegem, The Birth of the English Common Law (2d ed., 1988).

A number of guides can help you get started by suggesting general topics. Some are available on the Web, including these:

Lyonette Louis-Jacques, Legal Research on International Law Issues Using the Internet

National & International Legal Research (from the University of Alaska)

Rip Smith's International Legal Materials Page

WASHLAW Web Legal Research Guides (from Washburn University Law Library)

WWW Resources for Foreign & International Legal Research (From the University of Colorado Law Library)

Other places to look for topic suggestions are those listed in section I. Also check the periodical International Legal Materials, which is available in print at KZ 64 .I58 in the Law Library, and online on LEXIS and on WESTLAW in the ILP database. Finally, remember that your professors keep abreast of new and interesting topics and can guide you toward a issue that you can handle in a limited time period (typically one or two semesters).

 

Christine Corcos

 




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