Writing Effective Papers in Law School
A Student’s Perspective: Sam Rollans (3L)
1) Talk to Your Professor
The only opinion of your work that ultimately matters is your professor’s, and their backgrounds are as diverse as the students they’re teaching. They all have slightly different ideas of what a research paper should be. Take an hour out of your day and talk to them.
Don’t ask how to write the paper. Imagine your favourite book. You can probably explain why you like that book, but most people, professors included, could not explain, step by step, how to write it.
Instead, talk about the course material. Tell them what you’re interested in. Ask them what you should be reading. You will engage your audience if you can frame the paper around their interests.
2) Start Reading Today
You might know someone who can pull an all-nighter and still ace the paper. If you’re not that person, this strategy is a recipe for disaster. You are not that person.
After meeting with your professor, start downloading papers. Start reading cases. Start discussing them with your friends.
I like to paraphrase as I read, so I’ll have a personalized page index when I start writing. I re-read these notes often, and annotate them to draw connections and parallels between other sources.
I remind myself my best rebuttals always occur to me in the shower or going to bed (and sometimes days later). Giving yourself time is giving yourself the chance to get those on paper.
I’m not going to harp too long on this point. You know you should be concise. You know the difference between their, there and they’re, between affect and effect, between then and than. Make sure your reader knows you know, because when you’re the thirtieth paper in the stack, little errors like these will cause your work to be cast down in disgust.
4) Keep Everything
After writing for four or five hours you will hate every word on the page, and the urge to rewrite should be irresistible. When this happens, copy the old paragraph into a new document. Some of those sentences will fit perfectly in other parts of the paper, saving precious time.
5. Pass it to a Friend
If you have a friend from the humanities, odds are they’re pretty good at this already. Ask them for some feedback.
Realize editing is a big, complicated, time consuming, and often thankless job. Realize they’re busy too, so give them a few days to compile their suggestions. Spare them the agony of reading your half-finished paper twelve hours from the deadline. Buy them a beer or a coffee or a cookie to show your appreciation.
6. Don’t Panic
A Professor’s Perspective: Professor Joanna Harrington
There are many ways to use your three years at law school to prepare for a lifetime in practice. Writing a paper is one. Not every lawyer goes to court, but all lawyers need legal writing skills. And for those who want to be in court, written advocacy remains a crucial component in persuading a judge.
Writing a legal research paper, either in an upper year course or as a LAW 526 paper, allows you to build on, and develop further, your first year LRW skills. Many also learn by doing, and writing papers in law school can help you can meet the competencies required by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada for entry to practice. These competencies include “oral and written communication skills”, “analytical skills” and “research skills”.
For first years thinking about clerking, being strategic in your course planning so that you write a paper in the first term of your second year can lead to having a professor who can attest to your advanced writing skills and legal research abilities. Writing a paper can also give you a writing sample for a future employer, an entry for an essay competition, or a future publication (with the federal government being one employer that fast-tracks those who have published through its “Recruitment of Policy Leaders” program). You can also use the writing of a paper to delve further into an issue that arose when you summered, or to assist an NGO, or to gain knowledge of a practice area related to your professional development goals.
To write a great paper, you need a thesis. You need to have something you are arguing for or against, and then advance that thesis supported by evidence and analysis. Having a clear thesis, as well as a working title, helps focus both the research and the writing. A thesis that you can state in one sentence is also a sign of manageability for a paper of say 8000-10,000 words. Phrasing the topic as a question that needs an answer often helps.
You must also show clear evidence of a diligent research effort having been undertaken to find reliable sources. Legal Source, Legal Trac, and the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals (the latter found via Hein Online) can help you find current journal articles on point, and in many subject areas, books found in the library remain useful. Not every source is online.
But perhaps the best advice to give is the old adage that “many law students over-research and under-write”. Many spend much time gathering masses of material, but put off the writing. Write as soon as you can. As you write, you will uncover new avenues and arguments needing further research, thus the research and writing stages for a great paper alternate back and forth. Leaving the writing to the very end leads to a rushed job, and you leave no time to get further assistance from the librarians or your professor.