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Academic Legal Writing

Getting Started

Sometimes getting started is the most difficult part of the writing process. This exercise may help you get over that wall.

Step 1: What Do You Know?

Are you starting from a recent or major case, statute, or regulation? Are you starting from a particular problem, or tension between laws or interests? Write out what you know about your starting point, as much as you can. Treat it like a free writing exercise, setting a timer to keep you writing for about 5-10 minutes, if you can.

Step 2: What Do You Think?

What do you think so far about that recent or major case, statute, or regulation? What's working or not working? In the work that you've read so far, what have other researchers or practitioners said about this issue, and how does that perspective differ from your reaction? Be careful to distinguish between opinion and researched/supported theory or science. Write out a summary or statement of the problem, your reactions, and instincts or opinion. It's ok if your reactions are unsupported now; you'll identify gaps in your thinking and support that you still need to find, in the next step.

Step 3: What Do You Still Need to Find Out?

Considering what you've read and what you think, what do you still need to know? What have the courts said? What have other academics said? How is this issue playing out in real peoples' lives? Write out a list of research tasks. Your list should be as detailed as possible. For instance: "Find Illinois statute on judicial waiver for juvenile defendants charged with murder." Or, "find cases that have applied the Lemon standard to situations where schools are running distance-education programs." Or, "find applicable articles in Sociology literature about two-parent vs. one-parent households and long-term effects on children." 

Step 4: Finally, What Do YOU Want to Say?

Now that you've read, researched, read some more, and thought some more, what is it that you have to contribute in this area? You wouldn't want to say that your contribution is to explore an issue, or look at it. Your contribution should be to analyze through a new lens, to propose something new, etc. Once more, write out your answer to this question. Write using action verbs, to form a statement about the mark you want to make. This is your thesis statement.