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Note Writing Handbook

GULC and the ACLR require each staff member to research, write, and submit for consideration at least one note of publishable quality during his or her membership on the staff. Notes must relate to American criminal law in order to meet the journal’s note requirement.

A staff member’s note usually is completed by the end of his or her first year on the staff.  However, notes will be accepted until approximately 30 days after the staff member’s second to last semester (early February 2011).

The note should be approximately twenty-five to forty typewritten pages (excluding footnotes) and of a quality acceptable to a GULC seminar.  Most staff members, in fact, submit a seminar paper as their note.  This guide provides tips and strategies for note writing from topic selection to polishing.

Ideas for notes can be obtained from various sources.  Staff members may consult with the Notes Editors or Notes Development Editors for ideas on note topics.  Additionally, several loose-leaf services, reporters, and newsletters may be consulted for current criminal law topics:

  1. The Criminal Law Reporter
  2. United States Supreme Court Cases and Comments: Criminal Law and Procedure
  3. White Collar Crime: Business and Regulatory Offenses
  4. Criminal Law Newsletter
  5. West’s Criminal Law News

The ACLR’s law library liaison, Todd Venie ( can assist with developing a topic, research plan, and running a preemption check.

If you have any questions about the note requirement, please contact our Notes Editors: Kaitlyn Golden and William Margeson.

What is a Student Note?*


Notes are student-authored scholarly writings analyzing an original legal issue, a recent case, legislation, or “hot” topic in a particular area of the law. A typical note follows this format:


This section should provide a roadmap to the rest of the paper.  If your note analyzes a recent case or recent legislation, your introduction should briefly describe the case or statute.  Your introduction should also contain a clear and concise thesis statement.


When dealing with a case, this section should provide a brief summary of the facts, procedural history, and the majority’s reasoning. If appropriate, this section should also discuss the reasoning of the concurrence and dissent. If you are writing about a statute, you should briefly explain why the legislation was passed, discuss legislative history, and outline the relevant statutory sections.  If you are not writing about a particular case or statute, but instead are analyzing a legal issue or hot topic, this section should provide whatever material is necessary for an educated reader to understand how the topic fits into the current state of the law. 


This section contains all of your analysis. If you are analyzing a particular case or statute, you should describe why you agree or disagree with the court’s holding and reasoning or with the legislature’s enactment of a particular statute. What problems are resolved by the holding or the statute? What problems are created? What are potential solutions? What are other jurisdictions’ approaches to the issue?

If you are discussing a hot topic or legal issue, there are many questions you can answer in your analysis. Why is the topic “hot” now?  Is the state of the law better or worse than in the past? How and why? What problems do you foresee? What potential solutions exist? What should the courts or legislature do in the future?


This section wraps up your paper and restates your thesis. Conclusions should usually be kept short and are rarely more than a page.

Topic Selection

The first stage of note writing is selecting a topic.  Any topic relating to American criminal law is appropriate.  The Writing Center has prepared the following guide to students regarding topic selection.


* By Michelle Barrett and Meghan Powell.

© 2003 The Writing Center at GULC. All rights reserved.

A paper topic. It sounds so simple. But experience shows that arriving upon a successful topic for aseminar paper or a journal note can be no mean feat. Below are a few thoughts which might set you on the path toward an edifying and enjoyable paper-writing experience.

Topic Sources: Where do I begin?

1. Read the newspaper. See any issues which strike your fancy?

2. Consult a professor. If your seminar professor is not helpful, try professors from other

classes which intrigue you (or at least keep you awake).

3. Draw upon your undergraduate expertise. Might you successfully use the knowledge which

you already possess to steer you toward an interesting, research-able topic?

4. Peruse journals from your area of interest. Journals often include sections on recent

developments and new cases which might appeal to you.

5. Talk with practitioners in your area of interest. They may know even more about recent

developments than your professors.

6. Check the on-line research services. “Hot topics” on Lexis and “Highlights” on Westlaw identify current legal issues.

7. Surf the web.

I think I have a topic. Now what do I do?

1. Run a preemption check to see if someone has already written about your topic. Finding such a piece might be good news, insofar as it could be a helpful source for your research. However, the existence of a piece on your precise subject may end your publishing opportunities, as publication often requires an original topic.

2. Schedule a consultation with a librarian. Once you have a proposed topic, the librarians can help you with a preemption check, help you design a research strategy, and help you refine your topic. This usually takes between thirty minutes to one hour. The librarians request advance notice, in order to allow them to do some homework on your topic before the consultation.

3. Narrow the scope of your topic. Sit down and realistically assess what you can discuss in a 25 or 35 page paper. Ask yourself what aspect of the topic you want to address. Do you want to examine the application of a law or issue in one jurisdiction? Do you want to challenge the current legal definition of a problem or legal term? Do you want to compare one issue to another issue? Can you identify the cause and effect of the matter? Do you want to substantiate or to discredit an approach to a problem?

4. Transform your topic into a thesis. When researching your topic, look for a thesis rather than just a topic. Pretend you choose to write about the government=s regulation of the insurance industry. Now, try to fill in this sentence: “the government should/should not regulate the insurance industry because. . . .”


Dont force it.

1. The “kill-two-birds-with-one-stone” risk. Most of you on journals will need to submit a note. Students often try to use one paper for both their WR paper seminar and for a journal note.

This coordination takes some creativity, but may work just fine. However, if you find yourself searching for a Law and Literature seminar topic which will also work as a TAX LAWYER note, reconsider. This may prove to be more trouble than it is worth.

2. The “I stated my topic in class and now I can’t change it” risk. Be flexible. It is natural to become attached to a paper topic once you have identified it, particularly if you described it to your entire seminar class. But odds are that your topic could benefit from some revising, either because you find too little information to support your thesis or because you encounter more information than you can effectively assimilate. Remember: it is your paper.

Find ways to make the process easier for you.

1. Remember the option of writing an independent study paper. Have a topic in mind which no seminar addresses? Want to write about a topic covered by a seminar not offered this semester? Consider requesting a faculty member to sponsor you for an independent study WRpaper. This procedure, which requires the approval of both a sponsoring professor and a faculty committee, satisfies the WRpaper requirement, but gives you only two credits instead of the usual three for WRpaper seminars.

2. Reserve a carrel in the library through the circulation desk. With your own personal library corner, you will save yourself from lugging extra books around every day.

3. Schedule a conference with the Writing Center. We are happy to meet with you at any stage of your writing process. While we may not have expertise in your chosen topic area, we can help you to define a research strategy, to outline the paper’s structure, to identify problems with your writing process, and to rewrite and polish your paper effectively.

Still at a loss? Do not despair. Read Fajans and Falk’s Scholarly Writing for Law Students (2d ed. 1995), a short, easy-to-use book on selecting, researching, and writing an effective paper. In addition, here are some successfulpaper topics -- you can do it, too!

  1. Pennsylvanias Other Constituency Statute: Social Responsibility or Subordination of Shareholder Interests?-- focused on one jurisdiction’s law
  2. When in Rome . . . : Analysis of the Impact of United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez on Fourth Amendment Standing and Exclusion of Evidence-- analysis of one case
  3. Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act: Its Effect on South Africa-- cause and effect analysis
  4. Title VII and the Rules of Statutory Construction: What Has the Court Done?-- discrediting the court’s approach to Title VII problems


After you have selected your topic, you will need to begin conducting research.  Again, the Writing Center has prepared a helpful guide regarding this step of the note-writing process.




© 2003 The Writing Center at GULC. All rights reserved.

The key to the research process is being thorough. Below you will find some tips to help you complete research for your scholarly paper.

The purpose of research for a scholarly paper is to develop and document your thesis. Research for your paper will involve more than simply assembling the rule of law in a particular jurisdiction, as you would do for a memorandum. There is certainly not one correct research protocol to follow; the potential sources and strategies are limitless.

A.    Gathering Background Information

1.     Formulate a Research Strategy

The pool of sources for a scholarly paper is generally much broader than that of a research memorandum. With so many possibilities, it is easy to get endlessly sidetracked. Formulate a research strategy to avoid this pitfall. Have a firm idea of what you're looking for and where you will look before you begin combing case reporters. Consider beginning with secondary sources or consulting a librarian if you're new to the subject area. Prioritize the sources you plan to consult and keep in mind what deadlines you have.

2.     Conduct a Preemption Check

Unlike a research memorandum, a scholarly paper necessitates a preemption check to ensure that your thesis is original. You can begin by using on-line full-text searches of law review articles on Lexis or Westlaw. Examining the footnotes of the articles you find can be a good way of checking to see if your thesis has been preempted. A recent article on your general topic will likely identify a number of the arguments that have been made in the past and will provide useful background information about important developments and debates in the law. Because Lexis and Westlaw catalog law review articles dating back only to 1980, you may want to consult The Index of Legal Periodicals (available only in print in the law library), a useful subject-matter index to law review articles published prior to 1980.

3.     Ask an Expert

Do not limit your research to the library and on-line databases; professors and practitioners can provide some valuable insights as well. Professors are often well-informed of developing issues relating to their areas of expertise, and practitioners can describe the practical operation of abstract legal theories.

4.     Visit the Library

The law librarians have designed excellent reference guides especially for students, divided by specific areas of law. These reference guides can be accessed on the law library’s website at You can also make an appointment with a Reference Librarian to discuss your project and obtain pointers on how to proceed with your research.

B.    Finding Primary Sources

1.     Try an Index Other than Lexis or Westlaw

Check the Research Guides on GULC Law Library’s website* for a variety of listings of law review articles. It may lead to articles on your topic that are not available on either Lexis or Westlaw. Legal periodicals will probably constitute the bulk of your research, because they often analyze or update legal issues, provide interdisciplinary treatment of legal issues, and guide you (through the footnotes) to case law or other sources of information on current law. Don’t forget, however, to consider whether articles from other countries, articles relating to specialized disciplines and articles found in general interest periodicals may also be helpful in your research.

2.     Don’t Forget to Shepardize

You can Shepardize law review articles or legal newspapers with the Shepard’s Citator. This process is useful as research for scholarly papers to identify sources that may provide helpful analysis or explanation, or to show which arguments have been accepted or rejected by courts.

3.     Look for Legislative History

When researching topics that involve legislative issues, it can be helpful to get a feel for the legislative history behind a particular bill or statute in developing your thesis. You can obtain the text of a bill or statute from theCode of Federal Regulations. The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress and is a good source to find the text of floor debates regarding a particular piece of legislation. In addition, Committee Reports, which comprise the reports from each house and from joint committees, often contain an analysis of the content and rationale behind a particular bill, statute, or committee recommendation. All of this and more legislative information can be accessed on the world wide web through either the Library of Congress’ Thomas information service ( or through the Government Printing Office’s Access system (

4.     Consider Non-Legal Sources

Non-legal journals, magazines, and newspapers may provide insight into policy issues, provide examples of the consequences of a particular legal theory, summarize a legal problem in a particularly accessible fashion, or describe the debate outside the legal community. These sources are of minimal importance to a research memorandum, which is largely limited to primary legal authority. In scholarly work, however, you may be able to bolster your argument with an article from the Washington Post or Newsweek, for example, by doing a search on Lexis or Westlaw.**

5.     Hit the Books

The GULC law library’s online Gulliver system may lead you to books, collections of essays or articles, or treatises on your topic. You can search by subject using important terms, by the name of prominent authors in your area of interest, or by title if you are looking for a specific book.

C.    Consulting Secondary Sources

1.     Use Looseleaf Services

Looseleaf services compile capsule reports of recent cases, agency decisions, and regulatory updates. Looseleafs cover a variety of legal fields and provide the current state of the law in a particular area. They often refer to primary sources, making them a good way to expand your field of research. Looseleaf services are generally shelved on the fifth floor of the law library, with the most frequently used services available in the Reading Room on the main floor. More information about looseleaf services and how to access them can be found on the library’s web site at***

2.     Review the Law in Legal Encyclopedias, Treatises, and Restatements

Legal encyclopedias like CJS, Am Jur, and ALR summarize the law in different jurisdictions and provide case annotations. Similarly, treatises and Restatements cover the black letter law on a variety of legal topics. While these sources are most useful for memoranda research, they may be of limited use in researching scholarly paper topics as they simply explain legal concepts and do not analyze or critique legal theories. They may, however, contribute to your background analysis of a particular legal problem.

3.     Search the Net

Internet searches can lead you to current news, opinions, and the names of people and organizations related to your topic. Although the internet contains a wealth of information, be sure to carefully scrutinize the resource before relying on its validity. A useful guide in assessing the validity of your internet research can be found, a reputable website recommended by the GULC librarians.

4.     We’re in DC – Consult an Organization

Government and non-governmental agencies, organizations, and “think tanks” may be able to provide current or unpublished information that deals with your topic. Agencies and larger organizations often have their own libraries with reference librarians who may be able to help you further tailor your research. Remember, however, that many of these organizations have particular agendas; don’t assume that they will give you both sides of the story.

D.    Updating Work

1.     Again ... Remember to KeyCite or Shepardize

Responsible practice requires that you review the citation history of the authority you cite in your paper. These features of Westlaw and Lexis, respectively, allow you to efficiently sort through those primary and secondary sources that cite the sources you have located and read. This enables you to discern which texts received positive or negative treatment.

2.     Research Your Research

Credibility is important in scholarly work. The utility of a particular text depends largely on how other scholars regard it. Bear in mind that sources that are not widely cited may not be considered as persuasive as those that many scholars mention.

3.     Talk Through It

Discuss your topic with someone; a professor or practitioner may provide an expert perspective. Explain your thesis and what you've uncovered with your research thus far, and ask them if they have any suggestions.

4.     Consider Contrary Sources

Even if most commentary rejects your thesis, you may still have a defensible position. Perhaps your argument is based on new information. Or, maybe prior criticisms are incomplete or improperly focused. Be sure, however, to consider carefully the countervailing arguments that have been made, and address these in your paper.


Students often struggle with the question of when to stop researching and begin writing. There is no easy answer. First, you must ask yourself whether you have researched the most- cited cases and articles on your topic. Next you must be certain that you have checked recent publications. Last, but certainly not least, you must be certain that you can support the essential components of your thesis.

Do not worry if you discover the need to research more as you write. The pre-writing and writing processes often uncover holes in your research or questions that arise while writing. This is all normal, and you can remedy this with some guided research to fill the holes and answer new questions.


After you have completed your initial research, you are ready to begin drafting your note.  Although there is no one process successful writers use when drafting, the following tips are generally considered to be helpful.

  1. Create an outline before you begin writing.

If you are writing your note for a writing requirement seminar, a research outline will generally be required.  However, even if you are not using a seminar paper, and no outline is required, creating an outline will help you narrow your topic, organize your discussion, and identify areas that may require additional research.

  1.  Do not be afraid to modify your topic as you write.

If you have begun your note with sufficient time allotted, you should not be afraid to modify your topic as you are writing if you discover that your topic is too broad, too narrow, or if you just want to go in a slightly different direction.  However, be careful to avoid jumping around too much – give yourself deadlines and adhere to them.  It is one thing to add a new sub-topic or eliminate a section of your discussion; it is quite another to completely change topics one month before your note or seminar paper is due.

  1.  Realize that you will need to do additional research as you draft your note.

Even if you think you have completed all of your research, there will be areas that require additional research and you will not realize what these areas are until you have begun drafting.  Do not be afraid to search for more references as you writing.  Legal writing is a recursive process and supplementing your research throughout the writing process will make your argument stronger.

  1.  Do not get too attached to a draft.

Whether you are editing your paper yourself, submitting a draft to a professor, or working with a Notes Development Editor through the Directed Notes Program, realize that a draft is just a draft and be prepared to make substantial edits to your work.  Expect to make significant changes to the structure, tone, and analysis of your paper.


After you have finished a draft, read through your work with a critical eye.  Be sure to polish your writing for grammar, mechanics, and bluebooking errors.  Consider the following checklist, published by The Writing Center.


© 2003 The Writing Center at GULC. All rights reserved.


       A. Is the purpose clear?

       B. Is the thesis statement precisely stated?

       C. Does the Introduction make the purpose clear?

       D. Is the document primarily persuasive? informative? objective?


       A. Does the paper take into account all audiences?

B. Is it geared properly to the primary audience, e.g., the expert, the layperson, the general public, etc.?

C. How much of the law does your audience need to know? How much do they already know? How much do you need to explain?

D. Is it "layered" where appropriate, so that the expert can skip basic information, but the layperson will have it?

E. Is it internally consistent so that any reader, at any point, can follow the argument?


       A. Is the research complete? What is your list of sources?

       B. Does the thesis statement hold up throughout the paper?

       C. Are legal materials complete?

       D. Have they been accurately synthesized?

       E. Are all points of view accurately presented and responded to?

       F. Are all points accurately connected to the thesis?

       G. Is the paper analytical and creative, rather than just descriptive?

       H. Do footnotes function properly?

               1. Do they give accurate citations to authority?

2. Do they give the detail that is necessary, but that, if placed in the text, would disrupt creative and analytical flow?

               3. Do they collect together authority that supports a point?

4. Do they adequately explain the authority so that it is useful to the reader?

       I. Is the paper original and interesting?


       A. Is the structure obvious to any reader?

       B. Does the structure flow from substance?

       C. Does the Introduction present a blueprint for the paper?

       D. Does each section relate to the thesis statement?

       E. Is each section internally organized?

       F. Do paragraphs connect to each other?

       G. Is each paragraph logically structured? Deductively? Inductively? Other?

H. Are sentences organized logically, e.g., subordinate ideas are subordinated, main ideas appear in main clauses, and parallel structure is used to present like ideas?

       I.  Is there effective use of transition sentences?


A. Are the terms of art presented in the thesis statement echoed throughout the document?

B. Is there no more than one point per sentence?

       C. Is repetition used effectively where appropriate?

       D. Are rhetorical devices used for persuasion?

       E. Is word choice precise, using less legalese and more plain English?

       F. Are subjects and verbs generally concrete? Close together?

       G. Did you use active and passive voice appropriately and intentionally?

       H. Are nominalizations avoided?


A. Is the grammar correct?

B. Is the punctuation correct?

C. Are the citations correct?

D. Are all typos eliminated?

Additional Resources

The following books and article provide additional information about student academic legal writing.  Both books are available in the Williams library and the article is available on Lexis and Westlaw.

Elizabeth Fajans & Mary R. Falk. Scholarly Writing for Law Students: Seminar Papers, Law Review Notes, and Law Review Competition Papers (3d ed. 2005).

Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting On Law Review (4th ed. 2010).

Eugene Volokh, Writing a Student Article, 48 J. Legal Educ. 247 (1998)

The Writing Center is also a great resource for students to consider.  The Writing Center staff can help with everything from topic selection and formulating a research plan to proofreading and polishing.  For more information, visit The Writing Center’s website at or stop by McDonough 540 to sign up for an appointment.


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