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Guide for Law Journal Students

Look for Legal Developments

Choose a general area that you are interested in (e.g., environmental law, technology and the law, health law and policy), and then spend some time skimming publications to learn about recent developments. Before a case or statute is discussed in law reviews, it is covered in newspapers, legal newsletters, blogs, and other current awareness sources. Coming across a short article about a recent case or proposed legislation may give you an idea for a topic.

The Gallagher guide on Staying Current describes online resources and techniques that UW School of Law faculty and students can use to stay up to date with recent research topics. Includes, for example, information on Legal Scholarship Network (LSN) and SmartCILP.


  • Legal newsletters
  • Legal newspapers
  • General news sources
  • Industry newsletters and magazines
  • Blogs

Look for Circuit Splits and Novel Cases

United States Law Week (Bloomberg Law) lists circuit splits in the first issue of each month. It will also discuss them in other stories. Search for circuit w/3 split!  Add in a topic of interest: circuit w/3 split! and tax!

Each issue of Seton Hall Circuit Review includes a "Current Circuit Splits" column, summarizing recent cases.

You can also use caselaw databases on LexisNexis, Westlaw, or Bloomberg Law. Sample searches:

  • Westlaw ALLFEDS: sy,di(split conflict /s circuit authority) & da(>2018)
  • Westlaw WA-CS: co(low) & "first impression" & da(>2017)
  • Westlaw SCT-PETITION (database of petitions for certiorari -- includes petitions that were denied as well as those granted): "employment discrimination" & split /p circuit authority

Look at New Scholarly Publications

Browsing recent journals can give you ideas about what topics are hot and how issues are presented.

Search or browse new papers (published or unpublished) on SSRN or the Digital Commons Network.

Shaping Your Topic

Your first topic idea might not be just right for you. As you conduct research and think more, you may find that you need to adjust it somehow. Maybe it's too big to handle in less than a book-length work. Maybe it's too narrow to justify a publication. Or maybe there's not enough out there to give you material to write about.

Here are some ideas to help you shape your topic (without abandoning it). You want it to be just right.

Ways to Broaden Your Topic

  • Add one or more jurisdictions. Instead of discussing only Washington law, survey statutes or cases from around the country. Instead of discussing an issue in Thailand alone, discuss the issue in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
  • Look a little more widely.
  • Increase the time span you cover. Discuss how a doctrine has developed over the last several decades, not the last several years.
  • Define your issue more broadly. In addition to discussing the rights of subjects in academic research in psychology, think human subjects review in all academic research. In addition to discussing jurors' use of Twitter, discuss jurors' use of all social media. In addition to commenting on one case, discuss several cases that address related issues.
  • Add analysis from legal theorists. In addition to discussing the legal doctrine, add a discussion based on feminism, critical race theory, or law and economics.
  • Add a perspective from another field. In addition to discussing the legal doctrine, add perspective from social sciences, philosophy, or public health.

Ways to Narrow Your Topic

  • Limit the jurisdictions. Instead of covering all of American law, choose one, two, or a few states. Instead of covering all of East Asia, choose one country.
  • Break out one issue from several you have been considering and focus on that. Instead of looking at all the possible challenges to a new statute, focus on one.
  • Find a smaller issue within the general area of your interest. Instead of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, think of racial disparities in sentencing for misdemeanors in one jurisdiction. Instead of looking at special education across the board, focus on special education for children with learning disabilities or children who are deaf.
  • Narrow the time span you cover. Instead of looking at everything that's happened to a doctrine since the Industrial Revolution, can you focus on the last decade?

Ways to Differentiate Your Topic

  • Take a different position. Critique the other writers' analyses. Propose a new solution.
  • Extend the argument. Apply the law to new situations.
  • Update the material. Have later cases interpreted the statute or applied the key case? Has the legislature responded to the problem?