Write a Law Essay
In a college legal studies course, and in some law school courses, you may be required to write a research paper addressing a legal topic. These essays can be tricky, because the law is constantly evolving. To secure a top grade, your essay must be well-researched and coherently argued. With proper planning and research, you can write a stellar legal essay. [Note: this article does not address how to write law school essay exams or bar exam questions, which require different techniques and strategies.]
Choosing an Essay Topic
- Carefully read the assignment prompt. Your professor will provide a prompt or set of instructions about the contents of your paper and how it should be formatted. Your professor may ask you to research and answer a specific question, or give you flexibility to choose your own subtopic within the overall subject matter of the course.
- A narrow essay prompt might read, "Discuss the evolution and impact of the exclusionary rule of evidence in the United States." A broad prompt might read, "Discuss how a civil rights movement led to changes in federal and/or state law."
- If you are invited to choose your own topic, your professor may require you to submit a written proposal or outline to ensure that your chosen topic complies with the prompt. If you are not sure if your topic is within the parameters of the prompt, propose your topic to your professor after class or during his or her office hours.
- Read any required materials. Sometimes, an essay prompt will require you to read and write about a certain book or set of materials. Before settling on an essay topic, read any assigned materials, and review your textbooks and lecture notes.
- Brainstorm ideas. Different students favor different methods of brainstorming to come up with ideas. Try writing a list of ideas, or create an "idea map" by circling your topic in the center of a page and writing new questions, arguments, and facts branching off of the central topic.
- Hopefully, your course readings, lectures, and class discussions will have given you enough background knowledge to select a topic. If not, review your class notes and browse online for additional background information.
- It is not uncommon to change your topic after doing some research. You may end up narrowing the questions your essay will answer, or changing your topic completely.
- Choose an essay topic of interest to you. It will be easier to write on a topic you care passionately or curious about than one you have on which you have no strong feelings. You will feel motivated to research the issue thoroughly and should enjoy the writing process more.
- If you can, try to focus on an are of the law that affects you. For example, if your family is involved in agriculture, you may be interested in writing about water use regulations.
Researching Your Topic
- Identify what types of sources you are required to use. Academic researchers use "primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Primary sources are firsthand accounts of the subject matter. Secondary sources analyze primary sources. Tertiary sources provide an overview of primary and secondary sources.
Your prompt may require you to use a certain number of primary and secondary sources, and may prohibit you from citing tertiary sources entirely. You may also be limited in the number of internet-based sources you can use, and may be required to do a certain amount of library research.
- If you are prohibited from citing internet resources, you can still use online research to guide you to physical primary and secondary sources in your local library or bookstore.
- Begin with tertiary sources. Tertiary sources include encyclopedias, dictionaries, guidebooks, and textbooks that distill or collect information from primary and secondary sources.
Encyclopedia articles, well-sourced Wikipedia.org articles, and your course textbook should provide an overview of your subject and provide references. Usually, you should not cite to a tertiary source in your essay. Use these sources to find primary and secondary sources.
- Look at footnotes, citations, and indexes in tertiary sources. These are great for finding books, articles, and legal cases that are relevant to your topic. Also take note of the names of authors, who may have written multiple works on your topic.
- Speak to a librarian. If you can, go to a law library, which will have more specialized resources. A librarian can help you locate sources and navigate through state and federal case law reporters and books of statutory law. He or she may also provide you with access to subscription-only legal search engines.
- Consult specialized search engines. Different academic fields often use different search engines. In the Unites States, law students typically use HeinOnline.org for law review articles, Lexis Nexis or Westlaw to look up court opinions, and WorldCat or Google Books for books. Google Scholar is an excellent free resource for books and case opinions.
- Also find search engines for related fields, such as history or political science. Ask your librarian to recommend specialized search engines tailored to other disciplines that may have contributed to your topic.
- Gather sources and read them. Highlight or make note of important arguments, facts, and statistics. When you sit down to write your essay, you will want to be able to easily refer back to your sources so that you can quote and cite them accurately.
- Create an outline for each relevant source. Write down the structure of the argument and any helpful quotes. This will help you condense the argument when you reference or summarize the source in your essay.
- Never cut and paste from the web into your notes or essay. This often leads to inadvertent plagiarism because students forget what is a quotation and what is paraphrasing. When gathering sources, paraphrase or add quotation marks in your outline.
- Plagiarism is a serious offense. If you ultimately hope to be a lawyer, an accusation of plagiarism could prevent you from passing the character and fitness review.
- Look for arguments on both sides of an issue. Law is a political subject, and any law adopted by a democracy is the product of debate. Thus, you should be able to find rich counter-arguments on both sides of any legal issue.
Drafting the Essay
- Write your thesis statement. Your thesis statement is the argument you are making. A thesis statements should be phrased as an argument, often using the word "because." For example, "The exclusionary rule furthers justice because it discourages police and prosecutors from infringing on the rights of the accused," or "The exclusionary rule impedes justice because it hampers the prosecution of criminals."
- Create an outline. An outline typically begins with the thesis statement, and then lists each argument and counter-argument that will be addressed in the essay. Under each argument and counter-argument, include a bulleted list of facts from your research that support the argument. Note the source of each fact for use in your citations later.
- Begin your introduction broadly. Briefly situate your topic within its greater historical context with a broad introduction. For example, if your topic is the exclusionary rule of evidence in the United States, open your essay with the importance and impact of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Finish your introduction with your thesis statement, which is the narrow question your essay will address.
- An effective introduction takes the reader out of his world and into the world of your essay. Explain why the subject is important and briefly summarizes the rest of your argument. After reading your introduction, your reader should know what you are going to discuss and in what order you will be discussing it.
- Be prepared to revise your introduction later. Summarizing your essay will be easier after you have written it, especially if you deviate from your outline.
- Develop your arguments. An essay is more than an outline with the bullet points removed. Explain each section of your outline in complete sentences, and remember to do the following:
- State each argument of your essay as a statement that, if true, would support your thesis statement.
- Provide supporting information drawn from primary and secondary sources that support your argument. Remember to cite your sources.
- Provide your own original analysis, explaining to the reader that based on the primary and secondary sources you have presented, the reader should be persuaded by your argument.
- Outline counter-arguments. A strong piece of writing always addresses opposing points of view. You should accurately paraphrase any counter-argument to an argument you put forth, and then use evidence and analysis to argue why your reader should be persuaded by your argument and not by the counter-argument.
- Draft a conclusion. A conclusion briefly summarizes your argument without restating each individual point. It should cement in the reader’s mind a new way of thinking about the subject. Conclude by strongly restating your thesis statement.
Formatting Your Essay
- Review your essay prompt. The prompt provided by your professor should include instructions for the formatting of your essay. Make sure that your work complies with these instructions to avoid having points deducted from your grade.
- Use the correct citation format. If your essay is for a college course, you most likely be asked to follow the Chicago Manual of Style or the Modern Language Association (MLA) style of citation. Law school journals and some undergraduate courses might require the Bluebook format, which is the traditional format for legal writing. Use the format requested by your professor.
- Check the layout. Make sure that your margins, spacing, font, and page numbers comply with the prompt. Check the font of the body of your essay, as well as the footnotes, if applicable. If a heading is required, review any guidelines for formatting your heading.
- Check the length. Your prompt may impose minimum and/or maximum limits on your word count or number of pages. You may need to revise your work to meet those requirements.
Proofreading the Essay
- Read the essay backwards. Start with the last sentence and read it. Then read the next one, slowly moving toward the beginning. This forces you to pay attention to the sentence construction without allowing you to get caught up in the flow of the argument.
- Read the essay out loud. When listening to something read aloud, we more easily hear dropped words, misspelled words, and other errors. Microsoft Word comes with a “text to speech” function that will read your essay to you.
- Open up a Word document. On the Quick Access Toolbar at the top, click on the down arrow. The words “Customize Quick Access Toolbar” will appear when you hover over the arrow for two seconds.
- Click on the arrow. Then click on “More Commands.”
- In the “Choose commands from” drop-down box, choose “All commands.”
- Scroll down to find “Speak.” Highlight this and then click “add.” Then click “okay.” Now the Speak function should appear on your Quick Access Toolbar.
- Highlight the text you want read back to you, and then click on the Speak icon. The text will be read back to you.
- Search for common typographical errors. Certain typos show up over and over in legal writing. For example, using “statue” when you meant “statute” is a common error. Other common errors in legal writing include using “well” for “will” or “torturous” for “tortious.”
- Do not rely on a spell checker exclusively, as it will not catch typos like "statute" versus "statue."
Revising the Essay
- Share the essay with a classmate. Ask her to poke holes in your argument or tell you what passages are vague or confusing. An outside reader will read your work more objectively than you can.
- You can share the essay with someone outside of class, but a classmate more likely has the requisite knowledge to understand the subject matter of the essay.
- Incorporate your professor’s comments. Your professor might require that you submit a rough draft. Read his or her comments carefully and address them in your final draft. Schedule a meeting with your professor to review any comments that are unclear.
- Schedule time to rewrite. After taking some time away from your assignment, return to it with fresh eyes and an open mind. Sit down with your rough draft and a red pen and cross out sections that need to be rewritten. Dig back into your research and re-read your sources. You might see things differently now after getting outside input on your writing.
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Sources and Citations