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How to Write a Legal Academic Paper
March 1, 2012 - 12 AM
My last post focused on the institutional features at Yale Law School that enable students here to get a head start on building an academic career. I emphasized in that post the importance of creating a portfolio of publishable academic writing as the foundation of a career in legal academia. Yale’s unique writing requirements ensure that every student writes at least two papers during his or her time here. This post will focus on sharing a few (hopefully helpful) points on how to get started writing your first serious paper. While disclaimers about subjective preferences are in order, I’ll present one strategy on how to get started—which is always the hardest part.
First, find an area of law you’re interested in. Narrow it down to a discrete issue. Then, focus in on a few (three or four should do) major works by respected thinkers in a given area of law. Who are these scholars? Ask the professors here at YLS—who are usually among those respected thinkers themselves. The professors here will suggest both historically important sources to know and the most recent cutting-edge work.
Secondly, rather than try and generate an original idea on your topic, see if you can summarize in written form the views of two current, opposing authorities in your (appropriately narrow) field of interest. You will be surprised how simply restating other scholars’ views will cause you to notice particular aspects of those views that may not seem perfectly clear to you. Or perhaps a given view seems to miss something important. Hone in on that aspect, and do some further research to see if anyone else has satisfactorily covered it. And if no one else has really answered that gap, or has not answered it satisfactorily, then suddenly you may find that you have your own answer—and, crucially, your own original idea.
Run with your idea. Toy with it, question it, see how it plays out—but be committed to it. Finally, I recommend discussing your thoughts with others who can help you refine aspects of your idea and suggest solutions to problems you may face. You’ll find plenty of scholars at YLS, both peers and professors, who are happy to help.
I suggest this approach because I have found it to be a good solution to the paralysis of figuring out something original to say. It is incredibly difficult to just come up with that idea by reflecting on other scholars’ work alone, much less by just thinking about a given topic in the abstract. Summarizing the views of others in your own work is the best way to understand the contours and cracks of their arguments. And it is from that understanding that your contribution can spring. The rest is just care and hard work.