Choosing a topic to write about can be one of the most daunting parts of the entire note writing process. You need to find a topic that has not been written about before, that is complex enough to allow for deep exploration, and that is fascinating enough to sustain your interest through the research and writing process. Here are some tips to make that process a little easier.
Once you have come up with a basic idea for a note topic, but before you start researching in depth, you need to do a preemption check. The purpose of this is to see if anyone else has already written on your topic (or "preempted" your idea). Search in various journal databases to see what (if anything) has been written about your topic. Remember that Westlaw does not have everything, so be sure to search in other databases like HeinOnline and the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books. And if your idea is at all inter-disciplinary, search in non-law databases like Academic Search Premier, Academic OneFile, and JSTOR. Often forthcoming or in-progress articles are posted to SSRN before publication, so search there as well. If your topic has already been written on, you may be able to tweak your approach to make your idea unique, or you may need to go back to the drawing board.
If you are planning on writing about a live case, pending legislation or regulations, or another issue that could change throughout the writing process, make sure you are 100 percent certain of the status of the issue before you start writing, and stay on top of it throughout the research and writing process. Just as another author can preempt your topic, developments in the law can make your argument moot.
You will likely want to know if the state of the law or the legal commentary about your issue changes throughout the research and writing process. WestlawNext and Lexis Advance both provide various ways to set up alerts to let you know when something has changed.
To create an alert in Westlaw, select "Alerts" in the top right corner of the homepage, then click "Create Alert" and select the type of alert you wish to create.
You will likely want to use either WestClip or KeyCite alerts. WestClip allows you to save a search and receive an alert when that search turns up new results. This can alert you, for instance, to new articles written about your topic or new cases decided in that area of law.
A KeyCite alert allows you to enter a citation and receive an alert whenever that document's KeyCite information changes. If you are writing about a specific case, piece of legislation, or regulation, you should create a KeyCite alert for it.
Lexis Advance offers essentially the same kinds of alerts. To receive an alert when search results change, simply run a search, then select the alarm clock symbol near the top of the results page. To receive an alert when Shepard's information changes, Shepardize the relevant case, statute, or regulation, then select the alarm clock.
Once you have picked a topic, run a preemption check, and ensured you are up-to-date, you can finally begin researching in depth and writing. The Law Library makes available a number of subscription databases and a collection of free websites that may be helpful to you in conducting your research. You also have access to Leatherby Libraries' databases, a treasure trove of non-legal research tools.
If you don't know where to turn, or your research simply isn't getting off the ground, feel free to make an appointment with a Research Librarian. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, describe the general topic you are researching, and explain the specific issue that is giving you trouble. One of the Research Librarians will respond to set up an appointment.
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