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Health Law Research Guide: For Students: Academic Legal Writing

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A collection of resources and pointers for writing your scholarly paper.

In this guide:

  1. Selecting a Topic
  2. Topic Selection Resources
  3. Preemption Check
  4. Thesis Statement
  5. Style & Citation
  6. Database, website, and resource evaluation 
  7. Annotated bibliographies 
Take a look at the books below! Helpful titles in the UNM Law Library's collection.

Books in the Law Library Collection: Legal Composition

Scholarly Writing for Law Students

How to write scholarly papers for seminars, law reviews and law-review competitions, including a chapter on choosing a topic and developing a thesis.

Academic Legal Writing

An engaging text that provides practical advice from selecting a topic to negotiating editorial changes, also addresses ethical concerns.

Research Planner

Resources for Academic Student Writing

Get Inspired!

  1. Not sure what you want to write about? Use and subscribe to blogs, legal newsletters and other current awareness sources to identify recent “trending” topics that are too new to have been written about yet.
  2. Talk to faculty and others in the legal profession who research in areas of interest to you.  They may have ideas that they themselves don't have time to research.
  3. What has already piqued your interest in readings, conversation, footnotes?
  4. Think locally and globally: what is of interest to New Mexico? Nationally? Globally?
  5. Think personally: What about your own experiences?
  6. Have you identified a problem in a specific area of law?
  7. Browse legal news sites and blogs e.g. SCOTUSblog.

Narrowing Topic, Finding Issues

  1. Have a general idea of what you want to write about? From there, narrow to specific topics or subtopics.
    • Narrowing usually involves more research.
    • Explore the general area/sub area of law as well as doctrinally-connected areas. 
  2. Look for emerging issues related to the topic.
  3. Think about who is affected by this subject/issue, what are the implications, and what are potential problems.
  4. Critically assess potential topics:
    • Do quick searches of primary and secondary sources to assess the topic's potential. 
    • Is there enough material for you to investigate and evaluate?
    • Is the issue just complex enough to justify devoting a semester (or more!) to it? 
    • What types of resources would be most appropriate?
    • Tip: Find a topic or issue that is large enough to be important and interesting but small enough to be manageable.

Remember to check out the suite of short videos including the video on how to narrow your topic and find issues. We show you exactly how it is done! 

Consult Some Experts:


Topic Selection Resources 

Before a case or statute is discussed in law reviews, it is covered in newspapers, legal newsletters, blogs, or industry magazines and newsletters. Look up legal news using the three major legal research databases. Some legal resources enable you to search for circuit splits or cases of first impression that are worthy of writing about.

  • Look for legal developments
  • Review circuit splits and novel cases
    • What's a circuit split? When two or more Federal Courts of Appeal rule differently on the same issue, it signals that the area of law is undecided and perhaps the Supreme Court might resolve the issue in the future.Researching circuit splits in your area of study can be a way of finding a topic on which to write your papers.
  • Browse recent scholarly publications
  • Mine others' topic ideas, including calls for papers and writing competitions
  • Talk to people

Current awareness, news, and legal developments

 With each of these resource links below, click on the area of law you want to research, and you can either Boolean search those individual databases or review the featured articles on the home page of that area of law. 

Remember to check out the suite of short videos demo-ing how to select topics. We show you exactly how it is done! 

Legal Blawgs

Both the ABA and Justia websites have blawg directories that researchers can search by subject.  Legal blawgs frequently talk about hot issues and recent decisions and can therefore be a great way to find a topic.

Circuit Split Resources

Need help searching scholarly journals?

Use the UNM Law Library's Finding Journal Articles research guide.

Preemption Check

A preemption check is the process of determining whether the topic you are writing about has been substantially covered by someone else in the past.

  • Preemption checks look for substantial treatment only - an article on your topic in a legal newspaper or bar journal is not considered notable.
  •  Even if a topic has been examined by other authors it may still be a valid choice if you differentiate your paper in some way.

To perform a preemption check, conduct a thorough search of available legal publications:

  1. To craft an online search:
    • Think about your topic in legal terms, and construct a list of terms.
    • Best Practice: locate a legal treatise on your topic and use it to identify key terms of art for your topic.
    • Use a legal thesaurus, and thesauri from any related disciplines, to identify alternative terms and phrases.
    • Best Practice: find a list of the search connectors for each database you use to craft the best possible search.
  2. Search the law reviews & journals databases in the big three legal research databases (Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis, and Westlaw)
  3. Search additional full-text law journal databases and indexes as described in the UNM Law Library's Finding Journal Articles research guide.
  4. Make sure to consult indexes like Legal Source.
  5. Search Google Scholar.
  6. Search the UNM Law Library catalog and
  7. Check SSRN/Legal Scholarship Network and other legal scholarship repositories for forthcoming scholarship.
  8. Search American Law Reports for annotations on your topic.  Search ALRs on LexisNexis or ALRs on Westlaw
  9. If your topic is addresses a specific legal discipline or a non-law discipline (like economics or sociology), you should look for substantial treatment of the topic in subject-specific legal or non-legal databases.

Remember to check out the suite of videos demo-ing how to consult indexes, search for law reviews and journal articles, search the Law Library catalog, check SSRN, and searching Google Scholar. We show you exactly how it is done! 


Once you select a topic and do your preliminary research, you need to develop a thesis statement.

A thesis statement is the central idea upon which your entire paper will focus and it includes the issue that you will resolve. Some things to keep in mind are:

Thesis: an original and supportable proposition about the subject.

It is not enough to simply identify a problem; you need to try to resolve it.

Narrow your thesis to something manageable.

  • If the focus is sufficiently narrow, you will be able to read a lot of material and become an expert in that one area in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Sometimes, your initial research will suggest ways to narrow focus.

Develop Your Thesis.

  • Find one new point, one new insight, one new way of looking at the law, and organize your entire article around that.
  • Probe sources to search for an original thesis: critical reading.
  • Write down ideas while you read.

After you identify your thesis, test it.

  • If your thesis identifies a problem and proposes a solution, bombard it with hypotheticals to see if the solution works in all its likely applications.

Why document?  

-Documenting makes you deliberate: it forces you to stop and think.

-You are documenting your strategy and your research path so it can be recreated.

-It makes you remember the steps you took.

- It provides you with protection; you've covered yourself and your organization by documenting your careful, thorough research. 

Best Practices: your research log template should include: 

-Date: both of when you are conducting the research; and of incident creating Issue

-Issue: including facts and chronology

-Track your Research: What terms did you use? How did you get to your information? Citations!  Where did you get your

information from?

-Updating: What is the coverage date of the resource you consulted? Is it the correct time coverage?

-At the end of your research session that day/week: document the status of your research: Were more potential issues uncovered? Was the call of the question answered? What is the strength of your authority? Also document citation Info, including potential resources. 

Remember to check out the suite of videos demo-ing how to strategize your research, including logging your research. We show you exactly how it is done! 

Sample of one research log: 

Take a look at the books in the box to the left! More helpful titles in the UNM Law Library's collection.

Questions to ask when evaluating a resource: 

  • Is it free or do you need a subscription?
  • If it charges, does it charge by the search or only for downloading and printing?
  • What is your source?
    • Is there a source that is considered the “official source?”
    • Is there bias in the sources selected?
  • What is the coverage?
    • How far back does it go?
  • How often is this site updated?
    • When was the last time it was updated?
  • Access
    • You can access it today, what about in an hour? Week? etc.
    • DURLs, PURLs, and Dead Links
    • Full-text or not?
    • Original content, PDFs, or reformatted?
  • How do you search it?
    • Can you boolean search?
    • Does it do natural language?
    • What are the operators?
  • How are its results displayed?
    • Can you reorganize your results?
    • Can you narrow your results?

When Google searching, keep in mind:

  • Finding Aid vs. Research Tool - use it when you already have part or all of a citation to locate a known item, or use it to start narrowing down your research.
  • Good to use if you know exactly what you need
  • Good as a start to help you start limiting your universe
  • Scope
  • Where are your results being retrieved from? Triangulate from some other sources to make sure the info is good!
  • Results and Relevance
  • Popularity vs. meaningful to your research

What is an Annotated Bibliography? What is a Literature Review? 

"An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to books, articles, and documents. Each citation is followed by a brief (approximately 150-word) descriptive and evaluative paragraph, the annotation. The purpose of the annotation is to inform the reader of the relevance, accuracy, and quality of the sources cited" and how the piece of literature is situated within the topic you are researching."

A literature review is more substantive, synthesizing, and critical than an annotated bibliography. It provides "a summary, critical analysis, synthesis, overview of prior work done on a subject, and reveals gaps in extant research." More on constructing a literature review here:

Annotations vs. Abstracts vs. Literature Review

"Abstracts are the purely descriptive summaries often found at the beginning of scholarly journal articles or in periodical indexes. Annotations are descriptive and critical; they expose the author's point of view, clarity and appropriateness of expression, and authority."

The work that goes into constructing an annotated bibliography in many ways is part of the first steps in constructing a good literature review. However, rather than just summarizing each item as you do in an annotated bibliography, you go further in a literature review: you synthesize, compare, and analyze the themes or other aspects across the pieces of literature you've gathered.


Annotated Bibliography: The Process

  • Locate books, periodicals, and documents that may contain useful information and ideas on your topic.
  • Briefly examine and review the actual items.
  • Choose those works that provide a variety of perspectives on your topic.
  • Cite the book, article, or document using the appropriate style.
  • Write a concise annotation that summarizes the central theme and scope of the book or article. Include one or more sentences that
    • evaluate the authority or background of the author,
    • comment on the intended audience,
    • compare or contrast this work with another you have cited, or
    • explain how this work illuminates your bibliography topic.


Literature Review: The Process

  • Survey the literature in your research area of focus - read, analyze, organize the research that you find and review.
  • Summarize, organize and present the literature as part of your analysis.
  • Synthesize and group the information into a summary or summaries.
  • Critically evaluate the information gathered for gaps, limitations, and further areas of research.


Sample Annotated Bibliography for a Journal Article

"L. J. Waite et. al., Nonfamily living and the erosion of traditional family orientations among young adults, 51 Am. Soc. Rev. 541-554 (1986).
The authors, researchers at the Rand Corporation and Brown University, use data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Young Women and Young Men to test their hypothesis that nonfamily living by young adults alters their attitudes, values, plans, and expectations, moving them away from their belief in traditional sex roles. They find their hypothesis strongly supported in young females, while the effects were fewer in studies of young males. Increasing the time away from parents before marrying increased individualism, self-sufficiency, and changes in attitudes about families. In contrast, an earlier study by Williams cited below shows no significant gender differences in sex role attitudes as a result of nonfamily living."

Sample Literature Review

To start looking at examples of literature reviews, scroll to the bottom of this UNT Dallas guide.  See also this guide to consider more types of examples when constructing literature reviews (although the examples themselves aren't great).



Cornell University Library's Tutorial on Annotated Bibliographies, at 

UNT Dallas, Constructing a Literature Review, at


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