Navigating the Research Paper

research paper

Please welcome back Keri Clapp, professor and tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox to discuss how to handle your first big research paper in law school.

Once you survive your 1L year, you may be accustomed (or at least resigned) to having your grade decided by a single exam; you’ve internalized the organizational structure of legal writing, and you may have had a summer position that utilized and honed your developing skills.

Classes should be smooth sailing from here, right? Not always. Upper-level law courses demand new skills; you may not approach them with the same mix of awe and terror as your 1L self, but you’ll still need to meet new challenges. One of those challenges may be tackling the dreaded research paper.

You may be pursuing a joint degree or taking a class at one of the other schools in your university; you may be taking a class along with colleagues who have a strong background in a subject that is new to you, or, you may be overwhelmed by how to make progress on a research paper when the other demands of law school are high. While you have probably researched and written papers in undergrad, the stakes seem higher now. Here are some tips for navigating the law school research paper.

Understanding the Assignment

This may sound obvious, but students sometimes get excited about a topic and devote hours to it before realizing that it isn’t suitable for one reason or another. Feel free to brainstorm and do exploratory reading and research; BUT, before you head too far down any specific path, stop and make sure you are moving toward answering the question posed by the assignment.

You wouldn’t want to turn in work product that did not meet your client’s goals and you don’t want to turn in a paper that isn’t on target with the expectations of the course.  The best way to stay on track is to check in with your professor who is the most important expert.  Review your topic or thesis with the professor to clarify that you are on the right track.  Most professors will welcome the opportunity to guide you.

Devise a Plan of Attack 

Once you have refined your topic, think about how you will get from that topic to a polished final work product. Breaking the project into manageable steps helps you see progress along the way. Consider including the following categories in your research attack plan:

  • Explore and confirm topic and thesis.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Citation work.

A key part of your attack plan is assigning due dates to keep you accountable.  How much time you allot for each task depends on your start and due dates. For instance, you might allow two weeks for research, a week for a quality first draft, and a week for revisions and editing.  Stick to your plan by posting a calendar or checklist in a visible spot or by setting your phone or computer to send you reminders.  Whether you use technology or pen and paper, make sure your milestones stay in the forefront of your mind.

Once you have defined the broad categories in your attack plan, think about the mini-steps that you will need to take within each category. For instance, under “explore and confirm topic and thesis,” you might include subcategories for finding initial information, drafting an initial thesis, reviewing your thesis with the professor, and drafting an initial outline. 

Get Started

It has often been said that starting anything is the hardest part of a journey. That may or may not be true for you, but procrastinating will hurt the quality of your work product.  Make your plan of attack ASAP and once it is done, stick to it by scheduling time every day to keep moving forward.

Keep a Research Log

Research will obviously be a big component of your time, and it is critical to keep careful notes. There are many ways to keep track of research—you can keep a log in a notebook or on your computer–but be sure to start this on day one. If you don’t keep careful research notes, you’re likely to forget where you found a great source or hit the same dead end more than once; these roadblocks can be very time-consuming. A simple research log helps you avoid these frustrations.

Be sure that your research log includes complete citations and page references along with notes about where you found every resource and how you intend to use it. Your log should also include quotations so that you don’t inadvertently fail to give proper attribution to a source.

Remember the Basics of Good Writing

Writing well is a key component of being a good lawyer. Make sure every piece of your writing reflects the highest standards of professionalism.

Build time in your research plan of attack to look objectively at whether each section of your paper accomplishes its purpose. Once you have taken this broad view, narrow your focus by asking if each paragraph is strong, supported, and cohesive. Effective paragraphs begin with a strong thesis or topic sentence.  Highlight the first sentence of every paragraph and read them in sequence; if your argument does not make sense, your thesis/topic sentences need work.

Above all, don’t skimp on the editing and polishing process. Good writing is active, clear, and strong. As Judge Louis Brandeis said, “There is no such thing as good writing.  There is only good rewriting.”

Good luck. Research and write well.

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About Keri Clapp

Keri Bischoff Clapp is a law school and bar exam tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. Keri’s love for writing led her to journalism school and then directly to law school at Penn Law, which she absolutely loved. Keri was an executive editor and published author of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

After law school, she learned many life and professional lessons by clerking for a woman federal District Court judge in Philadelphia. Keri then joined a large Philadelphia law firm as a litigation associate and later worked as in-house and trial counsel for a U.S. government office.

The next act of Keri’s career brought her into the classroom to teach undergraduates and law school students. Among other courses, she has taught business law, legal research and writing, and bar exam preparation.

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