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Choosing a Research Paper Topic

Choosing a Paper Topic

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This guide is intended to assist law students at the University of St. Thomas School of Law with topic selection for Upper Level papers, Law Journal write-on competition, publishable papers for law reviews, and other research papers. This guide will provide guidance on choosing a topic, forming a thesis, preemption checking, and plagiarism/citation mistakes to avoid. This guide will also provide lists of sources for researching topic selection, available both in print and online through subscription databases and the free web.

For information on scholarly writing, please see our guide on Writing Resources for Law Students.


Identifying a Problem/Choosing a Claim

  • Think back to cases you have read for class that left an important question unresolved or that the reasoning is unpersuasive.
  • Try to recall a class discussion that intrigued you but did not yield a well-settled answer.
  • Read the comments, notes, and questions sections in your casebooks from class (or look at ones available in the library).
  • Read recent Supreme Court decisions in fields that interest you, and see whether they leave open major issues or create new ambiguities or uncertainties.
  • Check topical highlight databases for summaries of recent noteworthy cases.
  • Read legal blogs that specialize in the field you are interested in writing about – bloggers often post about interesting new cases that pose unresolved problems.
  • Cultivate ideas through research – READ articles pertinent to your subject.


  • Take challenging position on controversial issues.
  • Apply intelligent analysis to existing cases and commentary.
  • Strive to achieve original conclusion. 
  • Select a topic that is the result of recent technology or shift in public policy.
  • Is it a “hot” topic? – need to move fast.

What to Avoid:

  • Writing an article that shows there is a problem but does not give any suggested solution(s).
  • If you got your topic from a particular case, don’t focus on the case, focus on the problem.
  • Single-state articles.  Instead, frame your article as a general piece that discusses all the laws in this family/issue.
  • Articles that just explain what the law is.
  • Responses to other people’s works. This will limit your readership. If your piece is stimulated by disagreement with another work, come up with your own claims and prove it. Cite the other work, but don’t let it be the main claim.

Examples of Topic Types that Work

1.  Resolving a Jurisdictional Conflict

  • Paper that identifies an unresolved area of law, evaluates conflicting lines of authority, and identifies and argues for the better rule.
  • Jurisdictional conflicts arise:
    • in the U.S. Courts of Appeal, 
    • between state courts of intermediate appeal, 
    • between state and federal courts, and 
    • between the U.S. Supreme Court and statutory laws of individual states.
  • Topics in comparative law – especially good with secondary law reviews (i.e. Minnesota Journal of International Law).
  • Requires timeliness – paper must be published before the central issue is resolved – check to see if an appeal has been filed or whether the issue is included in pending legislation.
  • Topic/Key # searching on Westlaw
    • For jurisdictional splits: Topic #106 (Courts) – key numbers 90-98
  • Helpful Search Queries – finding jurisdictional splits 
    • Court Circuit /5 split & da(aft 1/2007)
    • Search on the introductory signal “Compare” in law review database
    • ALLFEDS – sy,di(split conflict /s circuit authority) & da(aft 2007)
    • SCT-PETITION: “employment discrimination” & split /s circuit authority
    • For state law – MN-CS: co(low) & “first impression”
    • Add terms to narrow it down to an area of law (i.e. A.D.A.) or use a topical database 
  • Petitions for Certiorari
    • Petitions that are denied may be a better source
    • U.S. Law Week – search circuit /5 split
    • Can also set up alerts on Westlaw & LexisNexis
    • Topic 170B (Federal Courts) & Key #452 (Certiorari) & HE(conflict)

2.  New Facts, Old Laws: Old Facts, New Laws

  • Apply an existing law to a new factual backdrop (i.e. technology issues).
  • Apply a new law to existing facts for new results.
  • TIMELINESS is essential here – race to publish.
  • Helpful Search Strategies – new facts/new laws issues:
    • Search for phrase “first impression” and limit to current year in case database 
    • Federal district courts
    • Administrative agency opinions
    • Issue question matter /s “first impression” novel & da(aft 3/2008)
    • interesting or intriguing or open /s issue or question or topic /p “beyond the scope” or “another day”
    • “beyond the scope” /s note article comment /s court circuit & da(aft 2/2008)
    • Take an issue of first impression in one district and apply to it the law of a circuit that has not yet considered the issue.
    • Check whether the case presenting the issue has been appealed – briefs may be available.

Narrowing Your Topic & Developing a Thesis

  • First do some preliminary research on your topic – you will need to narrow your topic and develop a thesis.
  • Example  – topic may be the rights of voluntarily committed mental patients in a particular state. You would want to narrow this topic and focus on something like the source of those rights. You would then need to develop your thesis, for example, determining that the appropriate source of such rights is the common law, not the federal or state constitution.
  • Not narrowing a topic is one of the most frequent problems seen in student papers.
  • Explore your subject to find an unresolved issue or an inadequate solution – can you break the subject down into parts?
  • After your preliminary research has enabled you to narrow your topic to a manageable one, your next step (and likely most difficult) is to find a thesis – “an original and supportable proposition about the subject.”   
    • Be a critical reader – ask questions.
    • Look at argument type (precedent, interpretive, institutional etc.).
    • Take a problem-solving approach.
    • Examine the broader context (are there statutes or cases involved that you should read?).
    • Keep a reading journal – help to keep track of citations and your thoughts.
    • Test/modify your thesis (use hypotheticals).