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Research Strategies for Federal Water Law: Selecting a Topic


Suggested Reading for More Ideas on Topics

Heather Meeker, "Selecting the Golden Topic: A Guide to Locating and Selecting Topics for Legal Research Papers," 1996 Utah L. Rev. 917 (1996) 
Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, and Seminar Papers, (4th ed. 2010), Part II(C).

Researching at UNM

Federal Water Law Seminar Paper Requirements

In broad terms, your topic for your Federal Water Law seminar paper must involve at least some aspect of federal law. More specifically, your paper should:

  • Clearly describe the issue
  • Briefly provide the necessary background
  • Examine and analyze the relevant law, and
  • Offer suggestions for improving the law, policy or practice in your selected area.
    • Depending on your topic, you might alternatively want to make predictions on the direction where the law, policy or practice is going.

Do not simply identify an issue and describe existing law or repeat what others have said about it--your own ideas, analysis & commentary are very important. Beyond the tips in the Topic Selection & Finding Issues box, below, some other sources of inspiration might include:

  • Talking to faculty or others in the legal profession who research in areas of interest to you
  • Thinking about what has sparked your interest in class
  • Thinking locally and globally about your potential issue
  • Thinking personally--what insight do your personal experiences provide?

Topic Selection & Finding Issues

There are a few steps to coming up with a great topic for your paper. First, consider what your current process is for selecting a topic. The overall research process for your topic can include:

  • Selecting a topic and narrowing it down
  • Conducting a preemption check
  • Creating a research plan
  • Finding resources on the topic and updating those resources
  • Assessing the available information, and
  • Organizing your research

You might be investigating across several different areas of law including land use, natural resources and biodiversity, sustainability, environmental justice, environmental economics, environmental dispute resolution, and more.

Topic Selection and Finding Issues:

Narrowing: You may already have a general idea of what you would like to write about, but you need to narrow the topic down to specific subtopics you would like to discuss.

  • Narrowing may involve more research into the area to determine what the real issues are related to your interest. 
  • You may need to familiarize yourself with the general area or sub-area of law as well as those areas which are doctrinally connected.
    • For example, if you are interested in the topic of federal water law as it applies to Indian reservations, you would want to also familiarize yourself with federal and state law regarding the establishment of reservations as well as the impact of state law on that issue.
    • You would also want to 'drill down' to a more specific issue--are you concerned with the impact on people, or on the environment, or both? Alternatively, are you interested in how this body of law intersects with business and/or industry? 

Consider what other elements narrow your scope--time period, jurisdiction, and areas of law may help you narrow your issue to something more manageable. Length of your paper and timeline are important, too. Is your issue capable of being thoroughly discussed by you in X amount of pages? Can you accomplish a thorough examination of your issue(s) before your paper is due?

Also consider depth--is there enough material for you to investigate and evaluate sub-issues? Is the issue complex enough to justify spending a lot of time on it? Also be cautious of overly technical issues--you might inadvertently spend a disproportionate amount of time on things like explaining terminology and describing processes. 

Critically Assessing Issues: As topics interest you, do quick searches of primary and secondary sources to asses the topic's potential. Consider the following:

  • What questions are you trying to answer? 
  • Who is affected by this subject/issue, what are the implications and what are some potential problems?
  • How will you approach or frame your topic?

One helpful tip would be to find a topic or issue that is large enough to be important and interesting, but small enough to be manageable. Some ways you can approach or frame categories for topic selection and accompanying resources are:

  • Legal philosophy or jurisprudence, e.g., examining a legal problem through a particular perspective, such as poverty law, business law, constitutional law, etc.
  • Historical law, e.g., tracing and demonstrating relevance of legal history to current debate. 
  • Applying existing law to new or newly defined factual situations, or applying new laws to existing factual situations.

To start building a research plan, begin to document the search terms you intend to use including keywords and more sophisticated search strings. You can use Google as a starting point and develop the list as you use more specialized resources and discover different terms used in your selected area of law.

Other helpful sources to get you started on a topic are current awareness tools, discussed on the next tab in this box. 

Current awareness tools can help you identify new or noteworthy issues in your selected area of law. It is helpful to find and subscribe to blogs, legal newsletters and other current awareness sources to identify recent trending topics that are too new to have been substantially written about yet. For example:

  • is a popular legal news site (link below)
  • Lexis and Westlaw Edge legal news coverage
    • Westlaw Bulletins, Westlaw State Bulletins, and Westlaw Topical Highlights are all databases in Westlaw where you can find summaries of notable recent cases which may contain interesting legal developments related to your topic.
  • The EPA's Water Topics page

Circuit Splits:

Current awareness can help you identify disputed areas of law, for example, when two or more Federal Courts of Appeal rule differently on the same issue (a "circuit split"), this is a signal that the area of law is undecided and that perhaps the Supreme Court may resolve the issue in the future. One publication helpful on this point is United States Law Week which is available in print in the law library lower floor at KF 25 N48 and current through August 2018. 

Open Questions:

Scholars sometimes identify areas where the law is unsettled. To find such areas, try searching databases of law journal articles on Lexis or Westlaw. One example of a search string that may be helpful in whole or in part would be:

  • interesting or open /s question or issue /p "beyond the scope" /s article or note or comment

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