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Paper Writing for Seminars and Student Comments

Advice and resources regarding topic selection, preemption checking, note taking, writing, citation, plagiarism, and possibly getting published

Topic Selection

How to Pick a Topic

A good note topic will make a claim that is novel, nonobvious, useful, and sound, for both the writer and the potential readers. 

The first step to coming up with a claim is to identify a problem - new legal developments, conflicts in the law, gaps or errors in current scholarly understanding, or any other flaw or hole that you identify within the legal world as it stands. The next step is to propose a solution to that problem - your proposed solution then becomes your claim.

Ideas for a note topic can come from almost anywhere: newspapers, magazines, blogs, other journal articles or circuit splits.  For circuit splits, identify an area of law or issue where courts have ruled differently and analyze an aspect of the issue or rulings.  In Lexis or Westlaw, search for caselaw referring to a circuit split by including a search string like "court or circuit /s split." Bloomberg Law compiles a monthly list of circuit splits available here (Bloomberg login required). 

Keep in mind that you may realize the need to broaden or narrow your topic during the writing process.

Preemption Checking

What is Preemption Checking?

A preemption check is conducted to determine whether there is new law or a prior publication (whether by student author or expert) that renders an article moot.  Your treatment of the topic must be original.  Your issue can be preempted in two ways.

  1. Preemption by law means that new case law, statutory or regulatory law has made your topic moot.   An in-depth and complete search in the case law, legislative, codes and regulations databases is a must to make sure your issue is not already addressed by law.
  2. Preemption by author means that someone has already addressed the topic.  A thorough search must be conducted to determine if any publications or articles have already been written addressing your issue using the same reasoning.  We are focusing on specific arguments and claims, not just a broad treatment of a topic.

Cautionary Notes:

  • Conduct a preemption check before spending time and energy writing and researching your topic. 
  • The full text databases on Lexis and Westlaw are not necessarily full text!  Some law reviews and legal journals are not on Westlaw & Lexis.  Others are listed in the databases but not every article from every issue is included. Extend your search beyond Westlaw and Lexis.  Use a variety of databases and a variety of search techniques.
  • Use the history features or keep a log of your steps as you work through the databases.  

Preemption Checking Steps

In Westlaw:  Search the following databases:

  • Journals and Law Reviews (JLR)
  • Texts & Periodicals – All Law Reviews, Texts & Bar Journals (TP-ALL)
  • American Jurisprudence (AMJUR)  (I would also search CJS)
  • American Law Reports (ALR)
  • Index to Legal Periodicals (ILP)
  • Legal Resource Index (LRI)
  • Current Index to Legal Periodicals (CILP) – A categorized list of the newest articles just being published.
  • General news databases – for recent articles about your topic.
  • Check case law and legislation and to KeyCite any of your cases and legislation.  The KeyCite report includes secondary sources that cite your case and legislation.  This will lead you to material that discusses your cases or legislation.

In Lexis:  Search the following subject areas -

  • Combined (LGLPUB) - The Legal Publications group consists of over 900 individual secondary sources including: Law Reviews, Bar Journals, ABA Journals, Legal Newspapers, Legal Newsletters, Specialty Legal Publications, and CLE Materials
  • Legal Journals & Periodicals
  • Legal Resource Index (LGLIND)
  • Law Reviews by Area of Law
  • American Law Reports (ALR)
  • General News Databases – for recent articles on your topic.
  • Check case law, legislation and to Shepardize your case and legislation.  The Shepard's report includes secondary sources that cite your case and legislation.

Don't forget to check databases outside of Westlaw and Lexis like Google Scholar, Copley Databases (e.g. JSTOR), and prepublication databases such as BePress and SSRN

Other Guides for preemption checking

Research & Note Taking


Good seminar papers and student comments will combine a variety of primary sources as well as secondary scholarly resources like books, journal articles, and sometimes newspaper/magazine articles. 

  • For books, use the LRC Catalog, Circuit (certain San Diego libraries), or Interlibrary Loan (most other libraries in the United States).  The reference librarians can help procure almost any book you need for your research needs at no cost to you.  
  • For journal articles, start with Google Scholar or the journal and law review databases in Westlaw and Lexis.  If you are looking for a specific journal article where you know the citation, search the LRC catalog by journal title to see whether we have print or electronic access to that particular journal.  If you are still unable to locate a specific article you know exists, please contact the reference desk for assistance. 
  • For newspaper/magazine articles, search the LRC catalog by newspaper/magazine title (e.g. Wall Street Journal), to determine whether we have print or electronic access to that particular newspaper/magazine.  If you are still unable to locate a specific article you know exists, please contact the reference desk for assistance. 

Ensure Proper Attribution with Good Note-Taking

The first step in ensuring proper attribution is to cultivate good note-taking habits.

If you cut & paste text from another source to look at later, immediately mark it as copied text & include the bibliographic data you’ll need for a citation.

Alternatively, if you’re taking notes from a source, distinguish your own ideas and analysis with some marking.

Save your notes and sources until you have finished writing your paper and received a final grade.

Double-­check your work against each source to make sure you have not accidentally plagiarized something.

Rules for Quoting

Whenever you copy anything, you must put quotation marks around it. Merely citing the source for the quote is not sufficient.

  • Be careful to copy direct quotations word for word. If you must change the length, indicate
    omitted text with ellipses (...) and place [added] phrases within brackets.
  • Short quotations must conform to the syntax of the sentence in which you place them. Pay attention to tense and subject/verb agreement.
  • An especially long quotation—50 or more words—should be set off by indenting the whole passage.
  • Do not quote from or cite a source that you have not directly consulted.
  • Citation should include a specific page reference.

Tips & Tricks

  • Use quotations infrequently.
  • Try paraphrasing.
  • Never rely on a quote to make your argument for you.


To paraphrase is to restate the meaning of a segment of text using other words, either

  • by expanding and clarifying, or,
  • by summarizing the main point or points.

It's not enough to simply change a few words around, or replace words with synonyms!

  • If you must borrow a unique word or phrase, enclose it in quotation marks.
  • Always indicate whose ideas you are paraphrasing by providing a footnote reference (including a page reference).
  • Sometimes it may also be appropriate to introduce your paraphrase with attribution. (According to Howard Gardner…).
  • Make sure that you make it clear to the reader where your paraphrase begins and ends and where your own ideas or comments are included.
  • Check your paraphrase against the source for accuracy, and modify phrases that match the original too closely.

There's an App for That!

Actually there are MANY apps for that. Two popular options are Evernote and Microsoft OneNote.

Or, search for note taking applications. See for example 

Writing & Citation

Academic Legal Writing

undefinedEugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing (2017)

  • The #1 recommended textbook for helping students write and publish their articles
  • Includes detailed instructions and templates. 
  • Available in the LRC Reading Room at KF250 .V65 2016
  • A downloadable Word template is available here



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

  • This book teaches law students how to write scholarly papers for seminars, law reviews, and law review competitions. There are chapters on footnote practice, plagiarism, law review editing, and publication.
  • Available in the LRC Reading Room at KF250 .F35 2005


Paper Structure

Typical Outline of a Note (from NYU Law, the Writing Process

  • Introduction: The Introduction should include a description of the problem, a thesis statement, and a roadmap of the argument to follow.
  • Part I: This section should be used to set forth the background information on which the later analysis in your Note will depend. It should be a general and broad review of the important issues relevant to your topic that educates your readers about everything they must know in order to understand your Note. When writing this section, be sure to use language that a reader who is not familiar with your Note topic can easily understand.
  • Part II: This section should examine the major cases and statutes that your Note will be analyzing. It will contain the main portion of your analysis of how the law stands. For example, if your topic focuses on a circuit split, Part II is where you would explain the conflicting holdings and rationales. You may also choose to discuss what other commentators have said about your topic and these cases.
  • Part III: This section is where you will contribute your own analysis of and views on the topic. You will say why you feel the cases/commentary you analyzed are wrong and what should be done instead. In the case of a circuit split, say which side is better and why. Part III is where you should place your original thoughts and contributions, along with the conclusion of your Note.
  • Conclusion: The Conclusion should briefly restate what you have already said. You should not focus too much on this section when preparing this Prospectus.


Legal papers typically cite according the The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, Twenty-First Edition.

Don't forget to use the index and tables at the back of the Bluebook if you are having trouble locating a specific example.

The LRC has print copies of the Bluebook available for checkout. 


Types of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the presentation of another person's work as your own.

It can be deliberate or accidental; partial or complete.

Plagiarism can include:

  • Buying, stealing, or ghostwriting a paper.
  • Using other people's ideas without proper citation.
  • Improper use of quotes (e.g. improperly altering a quote or failing to use quotation marks).
  • Paraphrasing an author too lightly.

Consequences of Plagiarism

Plagiarism violates USD’s Honor Code. Consequences of plagiarism can include:

  • Failing grade
  • Suspension
  • Expulsion
  • Rescission of a degree, even after graduation.
  • Barrier to admission to the bar.
  • Degradation of a university’s reputation and diminishing the value of its degrees.

USD Honor Code

Access the full USD Honor Code here.

By virtue of enrollment at the University of San Diego School of Law, all students are on notice of this Honor Code and its provisions.

Each student is responsible for reading, understanding, and complying with this Honor Code and for reporting any violations of the Honor Code.

A violation (e.g. plagiarism) may be either an infraction or a serious violation.

Minor infractions may result in a reduction in grade, withdrawal from the course, retaking of the course, additional work for the course.  

Serious violations are handled by the Honor Code Hearing Committee and can result in expulsion, suspension, a letter of censure, the need for additional courses or credits, or other sanctions.

Examples, Practice, and Quizzes

Use these free online tutorials and quizzes to further hone your skills in identifying plagiarism:


SafeAssign Overview

SafeAssign is a Blackboard tool where students can submit drafts of papers to check for possible instances of plagiarism before they submit final drafts to their course instructors.  SafeAssign is free to USD students.

  1. Email to be added to the Legal Research Center Organization
  2. When you are ready to submit your paper, login to Blackboard at and click on the Legal Research Center under the Organizations tab
  3. Click on Organization Content
  4. Click on View Assignment
  5. Upload your document
  6. Wait for an Originality Report

Understanding your Originality Report

SafeAssign compares submitted drafts to its database of scholarly research (journal articles, student papers, and other internet sources) and returns a Originality Report detailing the percentage of text in the submitted paper that matches existing sources. The report shows the suspected sources for each section of the submitted paper that returns a match. 

SafeAssign does not automatically detect plagiarism. It is up to the student to interpret the meaning of the Originality Report.  

For help understanding your Originality Report, please click here.

Notice Regarding Privacy

Papers submitted through SafeAssign on the Legal Research Center's page will not be saved in SafeAssign's database and will not be distributed to instructors. 

For questions email the LRC Reference desk.

Getting Published

Submission to Student-Edited Journals

This option is time-sensitive and the two submission seasons during the year are February to early April and August-October.  Submissions to student-edited journals is usually done through Scholastica.  For questions or help setting up an account with Scholastica contact the reference desk at

After you set up an account, you'll have to select which journals you'd like to submit to. It can be difficult to narrow down your choices but in general you want to keep in mind the overall reputation of the journal and/or subject specialties. Washington & Lee has a reputable journal ranking system here: Just like applying to law schools, you want to submit to a range of journals including ones that you think you have a very good chance at getting and others that are more of a reach. For more information on publishing student work and a list of policies from 196 law reviews with respect to publishing student work, check out this article faculty at UMKC School of Law: Submission of Law Student Articles for Publication.

Before embarking on your journey, read a USD student's perspective on getting published: Justin Shields '18, How Can I Get Published?, Motions.

Writing Competitions

There are tons of writing competitions that run throughout the year.  Although writing competitions do have deadlines, there are no strict "seasons" like student-edited journals.  Check out lists of potential writing competitions here and here

Calls for Papers

A call for papers is an announcement by editors of a journal or organizers of a conference that they are seeking papers on a given theme.  Here are some up-to-date blogs that post calls for papers: and