This week I have offered study and test-taking tips for the common law school exam formats. Today I cover the last common evaluation method, the final paper. In prior posts, I wrote as a recent graduate. This post I also
write as an adjunct professor of law who will grade final papers in the coming weeks. Here, in my view, are 10 steps to writing a great law school paper.
Preparing for law school exams? Read our other Exam Week posts:
Winning the law school mind game
Closed book law school exam preparation tips
How to succeed on open book law school exams
How to succeed on take-home law school exams
1. Determine expectations
Find out what your professor expects. Ask your professor. Ask prior students. Ask to see examples of great papers from prior classes.
Consider mechanics. How long should the paper be? Is the page limit really a page maximum, minimum or specific length mandate? What about font, margins, spacing? Find out if the paper and the footnotes should be spaced the same. Do footnotes count in the page count?
Consider citations. Does your professor care about proper Bluebooking of footnotes? Should you have oodles of footnotes like in law review articles? Or would the professor find that tedious and unnecessary. If footnotes count in the page limit, this is a real consideration—make sure you know the answer.
Consider organization. Does your professor have a preference as to how the paper should be organized? What about the ratio between background and analysis? How about headings and subheadings? Does your professor care?
Consider content. Does your professor have any pet peeves or strong preferences regarding what should be in your paper?
I have answered all these questions for my students because I have strong preferences. And because I want my students to write the best papers they can. They know what I expect regarding mechanics. They know I care little about how they format citations, but that I consider the rigor of their research to be important, that analysis is the most important part of the paper, and that I expect them to be concise, write plainly, and edit well.
2. Choose a good topic
Spend time selecting your topic. This is an important decision. Consider your tip #1 data as you make your choice.
A common problem that students make is tackling a topic that is too large or too amorphous to analyze in the page limit. Another common misstep is to choose a paper topic that does not allow you to demonstrate course knowledge. My best advice is therefore to choose a narrow topic that will allow you to demonstrate mastery of course material.
3. Conduct rigorous research
Once you identify the issue that you want to address in your paper, create a research plan. Start by determining how will you get the necessary background information to address the subject. Spend time getting a handle on the issue. Then dig deeper into cases, statutes, articles, and other sources to inform your analysis of the topic.
Most students are not rigorous when they research. On at least some level, your professor is an expert on the subject matter and will know whether you invested time in your research. The more discrete the course subject, the more likely your professor has deep knowledge of the area and the harder it will be to impress him or her with your research.
If you get stuck or think you have enough, ask your professor. Most professors who ask students to write papers want students to enjoy writing their papers and to put a great deal of effort into the pursuit. Demonstrate to your teacher that you are indeed trying hard, see if he or she asks you to try harder.
4. Create an outline with subheadings
As with any written work, think before you write. Since a final paper has no time limit, the professor will expect a well-organized paper. To accomplish this, start with an outline. Then add subheadings. Then bullets. Decide what you want to write before you start drafting.
5. Narrow your background section
In my view, a background section should be short. It should start with the taxonomy of the course subject and then drill down to the issue addressed in the paper. Generally, this should not take that long, maybe a 1/3 to 1/2 of the paper.
If your background section is longer than that, you have a problem. Either your topic is too broad or you are saying too much. Finish the first draft of your paper without fussing over the background length or brevity. Get a full first draft and then see tips #8-10.
6. Demonstrate class knowledge
A law school paper allows you to demonstrate mastery of the course material by applying it to a problem that interests you. Do not think the self-directed paper format means the professor does not care whether you understand the concepts learned in class. That is not the case.
Think of it this way: the professor has chosen to allow you to identify the fact-pattern to which you will apply what you learned in the course. Make sure that you address major course themes, as they apply. If you find that no (or few) course themes apply to your topic, do yourself and your GPA a favor and pick a new one.
7. Focus on analysis
If you think of your final paper as I suggest in #6, the importance of analysis should become clear. In the paper, you will identify the problem and explain the facts. Then you will define the relevant authority. Together those comprise what I call your “background” section. Once you have done that, the real work begins.
The bulk of your paper should involve rigorous analysis. I could write a whole post on the concept of “rigorous analysis.” Let me know if you would like me to do that. But you probably already know what it looks like. Consider the Supreme Court cases you read in Con Law or pick up a law review article from a top school.
Try this: write a quick outline of what you think should be in your analysis and then ask a series of questions about the points you raise. Here are some questions that tend to work well in a variety of situations: why? why not? who disagrees with this? what is the logical extension of that thought? is that good policy? who should bear the risk?
Work hard on the analysis in your paper and it will stand out.
8. Tighten your writing
Once you have a full first draft in hand, read through it and see if it flows logically. Is anything missing? When you are confident that it is all in there, tighten your writing. I have found that a first draft is usually twice as long as it needs to be.
Be critical. Or give it to a good writer and ask that person to be critical. Mark it up. Read each sentence and see if it really needs to be in the document. If so, could it be shorter? Do not use 10 words when you could you two. Make your point and move on.
Sloppy papers are hard to read and indicate to me that the student did not really try. Writing well takes time, and lots of red ink. Invest that time in your paper. It will pay off.
9. Edit, edit, edit
I will not belabor this point. This is the only law school “exam” format without a time constraint and professors expect you to edit. Use proper grammar, punctuation and spelling.
10. Accept offers for feedback
Many professors offer to review topics, outlines, and rough drafts. If yours does, accept the offer. I require my students to hand in a topic and a short outline. I invite them all to hand in long outlines or rough drafts prior to the end of the last class. Few of them take advantage of this. If you had the opportunity to get such feedback on an exam, you would take it, right? Do that with papers, too. Be one of the few students that do and see the benefit to your writing ability and your GPA.
Featured image: “frustrated college student studying poorly at late evening” from Shutterstock.