How to Write a Note: A Conversation with Published Authors
Each year, The Georgetown Law Journal publishes six to ten Notes researched and written by students. Journal members are required to write a scholarly Note by January of their 3L/4E year. Volume 110 Senior Notes Editor Wynne Leahy recently sat down with Volume 109 Senior Notes Editor Orion de Nevers, published authors Courtney Hinkle and Hayden Johnson, and reference librarian Dan Donahue to discuss the Note writing and submission process. A recording of their conversation is available below.
The Journal‘s Volume 109 Notes Committee also spoke with recently published authors Chris Conrad, Hayden Johnson, Diana Reisman, Ari B. Rubin, and Charlie Thau about writing a Note. As readers will see, there is no right way to do it.
About our respondents:
- Chris Conrad – Reefer Access: Dispensaries as ‘Places of Public Accommodation’ Under Title III of the ADA, Volume 108.5; Judicial Power in the Laboratory: State Court Treatment of the One Good Plaintiff Rule, Volume 108.3.
- Hayden Johnson – Vote Denial and Defense: A Strategic Enforcement Proposal for Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Volume 108.2.
- Diana Reisman – Breaking Bad: Fail-Safes to the Hague Judgments Convention, Volume 109.4.
- Ari B. Rubin – Grounding the Lame Duck: The President, the Final Three Months, and Emergency Powers, Volume 109.4.
- Charlie Thau – Is This Really the Best We Can Do? American Courts Irrational Efforts Clause Jurisprudence, and How We Can Start to Fix It, Volume 109.3.
1. In your own words, what is a student Note?
- Conrad: An academic publication, authored by a student, that addresses a topic of law that is novel and noteworthy.
- Johnson: A student Note is published scholarship on a subject within student comprehension. A student Note is a unique opportunity to add to the scholarly discussion in a less competitive track compared to the Article selection process.
- Rubin: A Note is a law journal article by a newly minted practitioner, nothing less. The same form and goals apply: a cogent and novel thesis, air-tight argument, and stunning clarity. If anything, the forms differ in depth and length. The Note is not expected to be quite as probing. But if you can live up to the standards of a practicing attorney, your Note might stand the test of time.
2. How did you select a Note topic? If you researched several topics before selecting yours, how did you investigate potential topics and how did you know when you identified the best topic to write on?
- Johnson: I selected my topic from several research memoranda I completed during two voting rights internships. From these research assignments, I understood the governing legal framework, studied the recent commentary from election law academia, and had an opportunity to learn from a range of perspectives of supervisors who are practitioners in the field. I then spoke to professors at Georgetown Law about my proposed topic and further narrowed my scope for the Note to be something within student comprehension. I also asked Professor Paul Smith (while taking his Election Law class) to supervise my research project and he provided essential feedback on my topic selection.
- Rubin: Before law, I used to work as a writer in Hollywood, and there the importance of having a good idea is drilled into your inner-being. A good idea is one that you could tell your hick uncle, and it would get him excited. That means it needs to have mainstream appeal even while carefully rooting its arguments in legal reasoning. I started with the general category and limitations that my Note had to meet. Because, like most students, I was writing for a class initially, that meant the nature of the class and any constraints that my professor imposed dictated the field I was writing about. From there, I scoured the issues of law that were hot topics in the field and then compared those topics to what the top news stories had been recently. This step helped me analyze which legal topics I might stretch to answer broader problems in society. Because I was writing about separation of powers, the controversies over the Trump administration provided plenty of fodder. Finally, as I began to brainstorm specific ideas and test them by pitching the ideas to others, I looked for what sparked interest in them, and I returned regularly to the original question of what I was excited about. It is important to remember that from the time you first have the idea to the time you are done working on it for publication, more than a year might have transpired. You still must be interested in that same subject by the end.
- Thau: I really stumbled into my Note topic. During my 2L firm summer, I was assigned to write a memo on what I thought was an insanely boring question of contract law. As it turned out, the issue was a) interesting; b) the caselaw was totally counterintuitive; and c) because the caselaw was counterintuitive, many practitioners were just simply wrong about how the caselaw operated in practice. I wrote that memo and it became the baseline for my Note. If you’re interested in getting published, definitely don’t wed yourself to a particular area of the law. I did not like Contracts during 1L, but I recognized that the topic had some practical use. The more I kept an open mind, the more I became interested with the issue.
- Reisman: My professor was very helpful in directing me to a topic of general and current interest. From the beginning, I was hoping to publish my Note so I wanted to select a topic that was being discussed and debated today. My original plan was to submit this piece to an international law journal or more specialized, peer-reviewed journal. I was lucky that my topic happened to have a strong domestic focus, which I believe made it eligible for a generalist journal like GLJ. I began with background information on the topic (in my case, a multilateral treaty) and stumbled on—what I believed to be—a serious problem that no scholar had yet addressed.
3. A thousand-mile walk begins with a single step: Once you selected your topic, what was the first step in your Note creation process?
- Johnson: My Note discussed the recent applications of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to a certain subset of election laws, so my first step was to know the recent lower court cases inside and out to identify trends and understand how judges tended to resolve these cases. It helped to create a chart that catalogued the holding, reasoning, etc. of cases addressing similar subjects in different circuits.
- Rubin: First, know the subject. You have to become your own teacher. Treatises and law articles are a godsend. Start broadly with what you think the main topic is, then follow the recurrent themes to see what has been written. Keep reminding yourself that your job is to identify and ideally fix a problem. If you discover that the challenges on your topic have all already been successfully addressed, keep looking. Do not stop digging until you get to an issue that makes you say, “Jeez, someone should do something about that.” Second point is that the learning process will not stop. Even well into your revisions, you will need to put things on hold and teach yourself a new legal concept in order to address a lingering problem in your argument. For this reason, do not expect to know everything at the outset. Start writing and let your article grow organically.
4. Describe your research process once you selected your topic.
- Thau: I think you first want to center your research around your argument. Find an argument that’s compelling, try to outline your argument, and let that outline guide your research. Then, let the research reshape your structure and refine/redefine your argument. The easiest way to start researching is, in my opinion, to look through a comprehensive body of secondary sources on the topic. Chances are that, though your argument may be novel, somebody has written something on the topic. Whether those secondary sources reframe what you think is up to you, but at the very least you’ll gain a more comprehensive picture of the topic, and those secondary sources are often extremely helpful as collections of other sources.
- Rubin: HeinOnline is a go-to for law journal articles and Westlaw has a great compendium of treatises. I avoid actual books at first just because they are too inefficient. But keep in mind that law journals are far from authoritative. Their strength is that you can follow their footnotes back to the original source. (Hint: If the journal article you’re reading is not well sourced, move onto the next one.) Talking to practitioners can be useful if you turn it into an actual interview and include their conclusions in your writing. I tend to wait until I am at least through the first draft before having these conversations. News archives are valuable for factual research (but make sure to confirm their conclusions), and podcasts can also be a great way just to expand your immersion on the topic.
- Johnson: I completed a supervised research project with Professor Paul Smith during my 3L fall semester after I had taken his Election Law class my 2L spring semester. Having the opportunity to work with Professor Smith put my research project on a different track, both because of his excellent advice/edits and because I was able to set aside dedicated time to work on the project for class credit.
5. What challenges did you encounter while writing your Note? How did you overcome them?
- Johnson: A challenge I’m sure all Note writers face is narrowing your scope. I was constantly mindful about wanting to narrow my topic to fit Note length constraints and try to discuss a subject that balances being novel and something that a student (as a novice on the subject) can add a meaningful contribution. I think the way to overcome this challenge is to do the hard work of reading all of the scholarship from leading academics on a subject and identifying areas where scholars have left open room for further or distinct analysis. I found it useful to complete a full page writeup/outline on each article about what the author(s) did discuss (and quotes/citations that I could use to bolster claims in my Note), but also detailing what the author(s) did not address to know that I still had some room to add to the dialogue.
- Conrad: Often, it can be difficult to know whether your findings are accurate and abide by more complicated legal thinking. It’s important to “gut check” findings against professors or practitioners familiar with the topic to ensure you’re not drifting too far afield.
- Rubin: The most important step is to figure out the flaws in your argument. This means sharing your argument with both knowledgeable sources in the field, but also outsiders who might offer divergent takes or merely point out areas that are impossible to understand. I was not shy about asking for reads. With this feedback, the trick was not getting lazy. Problems in the argument sometimes meant authoring new sections (and learning new law), or completely overhauling certain ideas. It takes a lot of persistence.
- Thau: It was challenging to write the Note while focusing on my other commitments (schoolwork, Journal, personal life, etc.), but it was really helpful that I got to turn my Note in for credit, and I would highly recommend that anyone who wants to get published write their Note for a class. It was also hard pushing past the mental roadblock of “what if this topic isn’t compelling to the Journal/what if my Note isn’t good enough?” I was working really hard on it, and I didn’t want all of that to not come to fruition. To that end, I was really lucky to have friends/family members take a look at my writing and offer constructive feedback. You should definitely ask your law school friends to take a look at your Note or portions of your Note, because they will often see things that you just can’t because you’re so invested in your argument/writing or overlooking something. Also, saying this as a former Senior Writing Fellow, you should definitely go to the Writing Center. They’re trained to help you with this stuff.
6. In your view, what factors make a Note particularly compelling?
- Conrad: Novelty, empiricism, and the timeliness of the issue.
- Reisman: I received some great advice from my professor in this class, which I believe applies to all legal scholarship: don’t just point out a problem, present a solution. I have noticed that, at least in Georgetown Journal of International Law, sometimes the Notes committee turns down a well-written and well-researched Note because the author has not really contributed something new or interesting to the discussion. Or perhaps the author’s takeaway is something generic, as in “there should be a new treaty” or “x country should stop doing this.” My advice would be to put a lot of thought into your solution or your takeaway to make sure it goes beyond what other scholars have already said.
- Rubin: My theory is that the issue must affect people personally. If it is a narrow niche of law, ask how the average person might stumble into the problem you have identified. Obviously, it is easier to pick a broadly applicable subject at the outset than it is to fake universality where it does not exist. A narrower topic is fine if you know you intend to publish it in a more targeted journal. But the same underlying question is important: Is the idea esoteric, or is it something that might make the man on the street stop to learn the answer?
- Thau: To me, a compelling Note combines sophistication of ideas with clarity of writing and structure. You obviously want to have an interesting/novel argument, but none of that matters if the Note isn’t readable or understandable. Often, scholarly works are necessarily complex, but that does not mean they should be incomprehensible. The best Notes take those complex ideas, frame them within a tight structure, and keep the writing clear. Often, unnecessary verbiage/legalize weigh the Note down. To that end, read the Note out loud to yourself. You get a much better feel for the writing, structure, and argument by doing that than anything else.
- Johnson: I tried to remain guided by two considerations: novelty and humility. It is essential for a student Note to add something new to the discussion, while also having a realistic understanding that students (or at least speaking for my own capacity as a student) cannot write the same type or quality of a piece as a leading academic or practitioner. From my view, the sweet spot for writing a compelling Note is to identify a new take or previously unexplored question that can realistically be discussed by an author who does not have the benefits of practical experience with that area of the law, broad understanding of the greater legal context gained from years of being in academia, or resources of research assistants, faculty symposia, etc. Finding a narrow point of discussion or proposal that still recognizes the larger context without attempting to master it is the key.
7. Honestly, how long did it take?
- Rubin: I came up with my idea in September 2019. As of September 2020, I am still working on it. So, there you go.
- Conrad: From the point of topic selection through final publication? Easily hundreds of hours for each publication. I would say an average of 200 hours for each.
- Reisman: As a result of COVID-19 in the spring, I started this paper rather late. Start to finish, I would say about 2.5-3 months. I put in a fair bit of time, but alongside other classes and extracurriculars.
- Johnson: The lifespan of my Note from topic selection to final publication was about 2.5 years (which I think is unusually long, but I will explain my process to the extent it is helpful). I began considering writing something on my topic after my 1L summer internship. At that time, I tried to take some time to read and compile detailed notes on some of the relevant Supreme Court cases and scholarship from the very top academics in the field so I could preliminarily evaluate whether it was a worthwhile subject for a student Note. I also began following Election Law blogs and practitioners/academics on twitter to keep up with the latest discussions, as well as asked professors with an interest in Election Law about their thoughts on my proposed subject (all were very willing to provide their helpful perspectives!). I then learned about the supervised research project opportunity at Georgetown and asked Professor Paul Smith to supervise my research. I began outlining the Note during 2L spring semester while I was taking Election Law and started more detailed researching and some writing 2L summer in the evenings. I completed the supervised research project during 3L fall semester and had 4 draft iterations. I further narrowed down the length of the final product for publication purposes over 3L winter break and began submitting to GLJ and other law journals that accepted student Notes in early February. Once selected by GLJ, I went through multiple rounds of edits with the top-notch student editors and the Note was finalized and ready for print in November after I graduated.
8. What was the publication process like?
- Rubin: The process has been wonderful. GLJ has the best Note editors in the world. Honestly, I have published in multiple journals, and GLJ is leaps and bounds ahead, in terms of both professionality and acumen. But wherever you publish, expect to work with the editors substantively on improving your Note. This means a few drafts of macroscopic changes and improvements, and then the inevitable proofreading and cite-checking.
- Conrad: Painfully prolonged but very helpful. It can be difficult to strike a balance between incorporating useful feedback and excluding feedback that, while potentially helpful, you choose to ignore. The time that passes can be frustrating if the topic on which you write is one that is dynamic. This can lead to significant revisions that warrant additions, all of which require further editing.
- Johnson: GLJ for Volume 108 was a well-oiled machine. The student editors assigned to my Note clearly took the time to read it thoroughly and understood what I was trying to get across and the key sources supporting my contentions. The Note went through various stages of editing and cite-checking over the course of several months. The editors gave me advice and opportunities to workshop confusing passages or fix citations that were to the wrong pincite or had become mixed up through my own editing process.
- Reisman: I am still mid-process, but so far, it has been great. The GLJ editors are very professional and easy to work with. The feedback I have received on the text of the Note has been very helpful.
9. Looking back, how would you sum up the Note writing and publishing experience?
- Johnson: Writing a Note is a fantastic experience and it felt like a capstone for my law school experience that would be similar to other graduate programs. The process and outcome inspired me to continue seeking publication for other research projects and have an interest in a future as an academic. It is hard work and a long process, but worth it. In job and clerkship interviews, my Note has come up more than anything else I did in law school and I am always excited to speak about the Note because it was a truly positive experience.
- Rubin: Publishing is a highlight of the law school experience. I took full advantage of the classroom opportunities to develop topics I was curious about into full articles. Not only did it provide multiple opportunities to write publishable work, but it was a great way to teach myself areas of law I found interesting and work intimately with professors whom I respected. Needless to say, having a publication on your resume is also a feather in your cap when it comes to hiring. There are few things in law school that are largely under your control. The quantity and quality of Notes you author is one of the few.
- Conrad: Extremely thorough. It was a privilege to have the staff of GLJ working to better my publications. The production of both of my Notes ranks high on my list of accomplishments in law school. It’s very fulfilling to publish something that contributes to a field of legal thinking, while backed by such talented editors.
10. Do you have any final advice for students pursuing Note publication?
- Rubin: One additional step to think about is just what it takes to find a publisher in the first place. You have a home at Georgetown to get your work in print, and you should consider all of the school’s journals. But do not limit yourself to Georgetown. Every law school has multiple journals and while many of them publish only Notes from their own students, at least 70 schools accept outside submissions. You should plan on spending a few nights just going through the journals’ websites to see which ones are available. Also, remember, after graduation, you can always expand upon your Note and consider submitting to any journal as an Article.
- Conrad: Put in a ton of effort early to come up with an interesting topic. Once you have an interested issue to research, it (1) makes you more willing to commit the time to the process, and (2) makes the topic more enticing to the Notes committee, as the prospect of citations and use of student Notes in litigation is a point of consideration.
- Johnson: I will reemphasize the importance of thinking hard during the topic selection stage about novelty and humility (i.e., picking a topic that can realistically be addressed by a student who is an amateur in the field). I wish I had thought about it even more at the beginning of my process and was glad that I eventually felt confident about my Note meeting these two considerations. Also, I highly advise students to pursue a supervised research project (see above) because it allows students to build a relationship with a favorite faculty member, receive their expert advice, and incorporate the student’s Note writing goals into their course load instead of trying to separately and simultaneously manage both. There are other ways to accomplish these goals—such as small seminar classes or being strategic about a research assistant position—but I think the supervised research project program is lesser known and best allows students to harness classwork to complete a Note. Best of luck!