The Art of Writing Projects in Law School: How to Research and Structure Your Paper

Projects are an inevitable part of law school life – there is no escape. There might be some occasional exceptions, but by and large, every once in a while, the old familiar feeling sets in during project submission time. Here are a few secrets – about projects, how to do them well and how to do them efficiently. I will ask you to keep an open mind while reading this. Trust me, it is not as bad as you think. Let’s go step by step.

The background research

Background research is the key to an efficient and successful project. And this is not about the project topic itself. This is a necessary due diligence that is often overlooked. Let’s face it – the main objective of writing project papers is scoring well. Therefore, it is important to know what the professor wants. Some might want imaginative projects. Some others might prefer a thoroughly researched project exhausting all the available scholarly works in the bibliography. Some others might focus on the small details like footnoting and formatting. While all aspects of project writing are important, some are given a greater weightage than others by individual professors. Find out what your evaluator is looking for – ask your seniors, or if you could tactfully phrase it, ask your evaluator.

The project topic

In most cases, project topics are assigned by the course teacher. In some rare cases, you might be asked to choose your own project topics. I would recommend putting in some thought at this stage if that is the case. In that case, the rest of your assignment becomes significantly easier, as you already have an idea about what you want to do and if you’re lucky, maybe you even have an idea about how you want to go about it.
In some other cases (and you might come across this as you progress through your law school tenure), you might have worked on a topic or a related area in a subject, be it in an internship, or another project or some paper that you have worked on before. In such cases, you might want to write a project on that topic. In such cases, it is mostly safe to approach your course professor for a change in he project topic, provided you can satisfactorily convince him. For instance, “I have worked on the social impact of homosexuality in my sociology paper, and therefore, for my family law paper, I would like to work on the family law rights of sexuality minorities since I am planning to write a paper on this area for a journal” is a good argument. “I have a project of a friend who has written on family law rights of homosexuals, and I plan to submit that as my own” is not.
Another thing is the scope of the project. You might find that the topic you are working on is either too broad (for instance, “Relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”), or too narrow. You may discover this at the very outset, or only after some preliminary reading. In either case, in such situations, it is a good idea to consult with your professor, as otherwise, there is a substantial risk that things could go horribly wrong. You could either convince him to let you restrict or expand the scope of your project as the case may be, or find out exactly what he wants.Structuring a paper

So how do you start writing your project? Read your project topic. Carefully, and several times. If you do not know anything at all about the topic, do some basic reading. A friendly textbook or a simple internet search. Write down the primary thoughts that strike you about the topic. What do you want to say about the topic in the project paper that you are going to write? Trust your instincts. Continue reading on your topic, but don’t get lost in the objective.

The objective is simple – frame a question; answer it. It’s as simple as that.

Well, not that simple. The other important thing is to structure your paper. Once you have your primary research question and your thesis, continue your research, but as you do so, structure your thoughts logically and plan them out. Identify the components and the layers of your argument, and use headings and sub-headings, wherever required. The focus should be on arranging the components of your argument to make it logical and effective. A well-structured paper not only looks organized and impressive but also is also extremely easy to write.

Argue, no one pays a lawyer for reporting

Again, keep it simple. It helps to have some clarity of thought. Know what you want to say, and say it upfront. Use simple arguments to support it. Outline the structure of your argument, and tie up loose ends. The reader should not waste time and effort to figure out what you want to say in the first place.
In my opinion, you should avoid being ambivalent. It is acceptable to present both sides of the argument, but draw your conclusions, and rebut arguments that go against you, if you decide to argue both sides. Another practice that is best avoided is to use authority to make an argument. It is, in a manner, placing the cart before the horse. It is much better, purely logically speaking, to make an argument and support it with an authority.
Most importantly, all your arguments should be connected, and the reader should have a complete picture, and figure out the strength and purpose of your arguments. Spend time reading your project after you are done with it to ensure that it reads logically, and easily.

Some useful tools

At some point of time, you must have looked for ways to make your project sound “smart”. Here are a few tricks of the trade that you could try:
Case comment
This is one of essential skills that you will pick up from your stint at law school – the art of making a case comment. What is important, is to read a case that goes on for a fair number of pages, and to pick up the essence of it. To figure out the most relevant facts, the main issues, the main arguments and the holding. Very few authorities can be used as effectively as case laws and precedents if you manage to perfect the skill. And with time and practice, it comes instinctively. More importantly, it can look really impressive in your project.

Comparative analysis

This is another pet tool to make your project more impressive: make a comparative analysis of laws in other jurisdictions. Unsurprisingly, the USA and UK are the top favourites for this. But there are a host of other jurisdictions that you could also consider, if relevant – for example, South Africa (this is a gem for Constitutional Law), Canada, Australia, to name a few. For instance, say, a comparison of the system for inter-state water dispute in federal states like the USA, Autralia and South Africa can be very effective for a project on inter-state water disputes in India. This also works for international law – for instance, for a project on the African Court of Human Rights, a comparative study of the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights can be very useful.

You can look at what works in other jurisdictions/syatems, and what lessons we can draw from them and make suggestions. Or, you could look at why things haven’t worked in other jurisdictions, and make suggestions to avoid similar failures.

Economic analysis

This is perhaps my favourite tool. There is a whole school and a very well developed jurisprudence on the economic analysis of law. While at advanced stages it could be very complex, at its most basic, it is very intuitive, logical and simple. Basically, it is using small tools of economics, like calculation of efficiency, or a basic cost-benefit analysis, or predicting behavioural outcomes through a game-theory analysis to make arguments. More on that in another post. From the perspective of writing a project, it can be very useful for streamlining your arguments, making them effective, and earning your brownie points, if you do it right.

The finishing touches

You must understand that although you may have finished writing the content of you project, this last aspect is just as important. In fact, if you ignore this, a large part of your endeavors may be overlooked. Here, I am talking about the technical aspects. Write a good research methodology (if you are required to write one), introduction and conclusion – your evaluator is most likely going to read these parts more carefully than the whole of the rest of your project. Format it and proofread it well so that your work does not come off as shoddy. And be meticulous about your footnotes. “www.google.com” is not a proper footnote. Make the effort to have good authorities, and to cite them in your project and include them in your bibliography.

The secret sauce

Writing projects could be fun. Think about the learning experience, and try to have fun. The projects in which I have scored well have always been the ones which I had a lot of fun writing. And you will like the learning experience, if you are sincere about it.
Also, projects once written can be extremely useful. You should seriously think about converting a well-researched and well-written project for submission to law journals for publications. Approach friendly seniors – they are more often than not, happy to help you out.

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