Research Strategies for Seminar Papers
This guide outlines the steps required for scholarly legal writing.
Researching a seminar paper can be a very different process than researching a paper for a first year class. The Student Handbook states that the upperclass writing project should "show the student's mastery of the in-depth research undertaken and demonstrate how the student has organized, clarified, or advanced this body of knowledge in resolving the issues raised by the paper." The qualities that will make your seminar paper different from many other writing projects are:
- Original analysis
- Comprehensive research on the topic
- Extensive footnotes
Here are some tips for making your research more effective and efficient:
- Plan Ahead. For your seminar paper, you are required to do thorough, scholarly research - this cannot be done in a day or a weekend. Allow yourself enough time to find, read, and analyze your research materials before your outline, draft, and final paper are due. Also, plan ahead for interlibrary loan requests - they could be here in a few days or a few weeks. We cannot predict how long it will take to obtain materials through interlibrary loan.
- Keep Track of Your Research. There are many ways to keep track of your research - either electronically on your laptop or PC, or in a paper notebook. However you choose to keep your research log, be sure to keep track of where you've been as you do your research. Remember, you will need to provide complete citations to all of the material you use in your paper - this will be much easier if you have a complete record of the research you've done. Use your research log to make notes about where you found useful materials and how you plan to use them in your paper. The research log is also a good place to note useful sources to go back to later as you refine your paper with additional research and analysis.
- Stay Focused on Your Topic. One of the easiest mistakes to make as you begin your research is to find and read interesting materials that are not directly relevant to your work. If you think they may be useful later, make a note of them in your research log. Always stay focused on what you need to research at the stage you are in. You can always go back to good sources later.
You will select your topic in consultation with your seminar professor. In addition to your professor or another expert in the field, some good research sources for getting ideas for paper topics are:
- Web sites of government agencies (state and local, federal, or international)
- Web sites of non-profit organizations and associations
- Newsletters in your field of study
- Looseleaf services in your field of study
- Westlaw's topical highlights databases (e.g., WTH-SEC for securities law topics; WTH-TAX for tax law topics)
- Lexis's emerging issues analysis files listed by topic (Legal > Secondary Legal > Emerging Issues Analysis)
- Legal newspapers (most are on Lexis or Westlaw)
- Look for recent scholarship in LegalTrac
- Major newspapers, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, include stories about interesting and emerging legal issues
- Blogs in your field of study
- Split Circuits (a blog that tracks circuit splits)
- Law Review Symposia - listings available through Berkeley Electronic Press (bepress)
- Legal Scholarship Blog - listings available through a collaboration between the law schools at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Washington
- Georgetown Events - listing scholarly events held at Georgetown Law
Since you are required to present original analysis in your paper, you must determine that nobody else has already published an article with the thesis you expect to write. There may be articles on similar topics, but you want to make sure that the paper you write has not already been written by somebody else. In order to do a preemption check, you will need to search the journal literature to see what has already been written on your topic. If you search all of indexes and databases listed below, you will notice that there is a lot of overlap among the sources. Each, however, covers some journals that the others do not.
- Legal Periodicals & Books (scroll down to 'Index to Legal Periodicals & Books'; covers journals from 1908 to present)
- Print: KF8 .I4 (subscription ceased in 2007)
- Print: KF8 .I4 (subscription ceased in 2007)
- Legal Trac (covers 1980 to present)
- Current Index to Legal Periodicals (covers articles 3 months after publication)
- Lexis's full-text journal database (Legal > Secondary Legal > Law Reviews, CLE, Legal Journals & Periodicals Combined) (covers journals from about 1980 to present)
- Westlaw's full-text journal and treatise database (TP-ALL) (covers journals from about 1980 to present)
- SSRN Legal Scholarship Network includes papers that have been accepted but not yet published in journals.
- Berkeley Electronic Press (bepress) Legal Repositories
If your paper is on a foreign or international topic, you should also consult the following indexes:
- Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals
- Print: INTL Ref KF8 .I35
- Legal Journal Index
One research bonus of this step is that you are likely to find sources that will be useful in writing your paper. Be sure to note these in your research log so that you can come back to them later.
You will want to look for background information about your topic by reading relevant books and journal articles. As you get into your background research and reading, you may find that you need to reevaluate your topic and narrow or broaden it as necessary. When you read through your background sources, you will find not only a discussion of the issues you will be researching, but also extensive citations to relevant materials for your focused research: leading cases, important statutes and regulations, as well as additional secondary sources. Make a note of these in your research log so that you can use them when you begin your in-depth research.
- Look for books using GULLiver, the Library's online catalog. Keyword searching will usually be the best place to start - follow the instructions for terms and connectors, fields, truncation, and phrases.
- Look for articles in the journal literature. If you are doing interdisciplinary research, you will need to search non-legal journal indexes as well as the legal indexes mentioned above. For more information on searching the journal literature and links to relevant databases, take a look at the following guides:
In this step, you will often be consulting specialized materials for your area of law (e.g., copyright, environment, international trade). To identify specialized materials that may be useful, consult one of our research guides, ask the Reference Desks for assistance or make a Research Consultation appointment.
- Follow citations from your background reading
- Read relevant legal materials for your issue (e.g., cases, statutes, regulations, agency opinions, legislative history, and/or government reports)
- Update the cases you will use for your paper using KeyCite or Shepard's
- Look for non-legal materials for your issue (e.g., social sciences, economics, statistical information, other interdisciplinary areas )
You may wish to review Researching Your Scholarly Writing.
Your professor will give you details on the requirements for your paper. The general requirements for the Upperclass Legal Writing Requirement are published in the Student Handbook of Academic Policies by the Registrar's office.
- Georgetown Law Writing Center is available to assist members of the GULC community and has posted documents helpful to the seminar paper writing process. The Language Center offers specialized assistance to students for whom English is a second language. Each semester, they offer a series of writing workshops. Please visit their TWEN site for more information.
- Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, and Seminar Papers (2007) KF250 .V64 2005.
- Elizabeth Fajans & Mary R. Falk, Scholarly Writing for Law Students (2005) KF250 .F35 2005.
- Heather Meeker, Stalking the Golden Topic: A Guide to Locating and Selecting Topics for Legal Research Papers, 1996 Utah L. Rev. 917. K25 .T34; also available electronically.
- Once you've finished your paper, you may want to consider submitting it for publication. The library's guide on publishing articles in law reviews and journals will help you navigate the process.
Revised 8/1/2008 (KPJ)
Links 10/2012 (ET)
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