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Scholarly Writing: Choosing a Topic

Choosing a Topic

Choosing your topic can seem overwhelming -- where do you start? Keeping in mind that the best papers choose a topic that makes a claim/takes a stance that is both novel (i.e. unique, new) and provides something additional to already-existing scholarship.

Step 1: Identify a legal problem. This can be a policy concern, conflict in law, gap in knowledge, etc. Look to legal periodicals, and online databases that organize legal news to start and then look to secondary sources like books and law review articles to help define. 

  • Search relevant literature & keep track of it as you go -- these sources can turn into your research log and save you time in the future.

Step 2: Propose a solution to the problem you chose in Step 1.

Step 3: Perform preemption checks*, wherein you'll make sure that the topic you've chosen has not been preempted by other scholarship (i.e. someone else hasn't discussed the same problem and solution from Steps 1 and 2). 

*See the next tab for more information on how to perform preemption checks

Still not sure where to start? Narrow your options by thinking about what classes you enjoyed the most, what legal work interests you, and what areas of law you may want to work in during your career. 

What are they and why should I care?

Preemption checks are an important step in writing for a law review or journal, their primary purpose being to see whether someone else has already written an article on the same topic, with the same thesis, and with the same focus. This matters because law reviews and journals use originality as part of the publishing criteria. In short, a preemption check will ensure that the specific topic and focus you've chosen will add to existing scholarship. 

Preemption Check Steps

For a thorough preemption check, take the following steps:

  1. Search for legal articles using legal article indexes.

  2. Search for legal articles — including working papers — using full-text sources for legal articles.

  3. Search for non-legal articles if your topic has an interdisciplinary slant.

  4. Search for books and book chapters.

  5. Set up alerts to keep current on newly-published articles.

Be sure that articles on the same topic you encounter in your preemption search are read in their entirety so that you can determine whether your idea can be differentiated. Not only will these steps help ensure that your thesis is novel, but it will also provide you with an arsenal of scholarly works that can help refine your own research. For more information, check out this preemption checklist provided by the University of San Francisco's Law Library here. For practice on preemption checking, check out this CALI lesson.

Circuit Splits

Because you want your topic to relate to ongoing debate in some way, looking at circuit splits can be a great place to find topic ideas.

To find Circuit splits in Westlaw or Lexis, select all federal jurisdiction and use the search: circuit /2 split! AND [topic of interest].

Law Blogs


Legal Scholarship Blog

Blawg search

Law Professor Blog Network

ABA Blawg Directory

Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog

Legal Podcasts

Amicus with Dahlia Litwick

Scotus Talk:

Law Next

Evolve the Law

Bloomberg Law

Make No Law: The First Amendment Podcast

Opening Arguments

Stay Tuned with Preet

Legal News Sources

News on Lexis +

News on Westlaw Precision 

Law 360

ABA Journal

Environment News Service

Other Sources

This research guide from the Brooklyn Law School law library has links to recorded workshops with advice on how to choose a topic, plagiarism, writing a thesis, and researching your paper.  

Once you've already chosen your research topic, you can find research guides on your specific topic by using the following in Google: [topic] + legal research guide

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Congressional Court Watcher: Search for "Congressional Court Watcher" to find weekly updates on appellate decisions.

Search Google Scholar

Google Scholar Search