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What is your process for deciding on a research paper topic (in an unfamiliar practice area)?

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My process normally involves reading current newsletters and publications in a given practice area and looking for gaps or areas of debate/confusion. However, I have been struggling these last couple of days trying to find a research topic and was looking for some potential new ways to narrow down my research and come up with a topic worthy of discussing for ~30 pages. So, what do you guys do?!

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42 minutes ago, switchdog said:

My process normally involves reading current newsletters and publications in a given practice area and looking for gaps or areas of debate/confusion. However, I have been struggling these last couple of days trying to find a research topic and was looking for some potential new ways to narrow down my research and come up with a topic worthy of discussing for ~30 pages. So, what do you guys do?!

It sounds like you're a law student, trying to figure out a paper for a course? If that's the case, speak to your prof and bounce some ideas off  him/her. 

If that's not an option, I would review secondary sources. Try https://canliiconnects.org/en/ and https://www.lawtimesnews.com/ for example, and check out articles on recent cases. You'll find a wide variety of issues being discussed and debated. Find something you're interested in, particularly in an area where the law is still very much undecided, and run with it.

Next I'd zoom in on that topic and review a variety of secondary sources (try searching http://www.feefiefoefirm.com/ca/ to see how other lawyers are talking about that issues/to get a basic idea of the relevant applicable laws) and start reviewing westlaw and so forth.

Find a creative angle on that topic and something compelling to argue. 30 pages will fly by in a blink of an eye. You can hammer something in the rough in a couple of days, then take another week or two to really polish it off, throw in your citations, and you've easily surpassed 30 pages. 

Feel free to PM if you have any other questions or something more specific you want to discuss. 

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Almost every prof I ever had had some “pet” issue. If your prof has ever gone off on a rant, or if they have a running joke, take it seriously and do your paper on that. The prof has already signaled they believe it is a real issue, and they will appreciate the engagement. What’s more, if you find yourself intrigued by it too you now have an equally interested person to talk to. 

Not bad for setting the foundation for a reference or possible work as a research assistant. 

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Inspiration can come from everywhere, and I try to take in information from a variety of sources and then try to make legal connections. One of my recent papers that I did particularly well on was as a result of my listening to a Freakonomics podcast and then applying those ideas to some course material. If you have time, I'd start looking for info in areas you're interested in and then think about the legal implications. 

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14 hours ago, Hegdis said:

Almost every prof I ever had had some “pet” issue. If your prof has ever gone off on a rant, or if they have a running joke, take it seriously and do your paper on that. The prof has already signaled they believe it is a real issue, and they will appreciate the engagement. What’s more, if you find yourself intrigued by it too you now have an equally interested person to talk to. 

Not bad for setting the foundation for a reference or possible work as a research assistant. 

I'd be careful with this though, as I'm always worried that papers on "pet" issues have to be top notch given the profs extra familiarity with the issue.

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2 hours ago, TKNumber3 said:

I'd be careful with this though, as I'm always worried that papers on "pet" issues have to be top notch given the profs extra familiarity with the issue.

I went the pet issue route once, it wasn't the end of the world but I didn't do it again. There is nothing wrong with it but you're walking a very fine line. Too little depth and you look like a kiss-ass who only took it because it is your prof's pet issue. Too much depth and you risk making mistakes in your analysis. An unfamiliar prof is unlikely to recognize if your position is contradicted by information that is not in your paper but that will stick out like a sore thumb to an expert. So your research and analysis has to be super thorough. Again, not the end of the world, and a great experience if you're legitimately interested in the topic, but definitely more work and I wouldn't advise it if you're just looking for a course paper.

On topic, I do not recommend starting with cases or publications in an unfamiliar area. Sounds like a recipe to confuse yourself. Closer to the tail-end of law school my papers became way more theoretical and into the nitty-gritty of the jurisprudence, but you shouldn't aim for that in an unfamiliar area. If you're less familiar, I'd suggest starting with a related social issue. So, as a random example, if your class is family or business related, maybe you take the Bezos divorce. How do Canadian family/corporate principles apply? Is the outcome equitable? More or less than the US outcome? Etc., etc. Maybe your course can somehow relate to the homeless crisis in Toronto. Maybe (for the sake of being less Ontario-centric) it can relate to the Trans Mountain pipeline. Maybe you can compare Brexit to the 1995 separation referendum. It all depends on what the course is, but start with the non-law and then go into the legal principles. Starting with the legal principles is fine once you get some expertise in that area, but I wouldn't recommend it in an unfamiliar area.

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9 hours ago, ProfReader said:

What class is the paper for?

It's for a "directed research project", so it is up to me to decide on a practice area, topic, and professor to do the research under. I did some very minor class action research in the past and it interests me, so I have chosen that for my practice area because I want to explore it more, and we don't have a class for it at my law school. I just need to come up with something before approaching a professor and he/she can then help me flesh it out.

 

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I understand the words of caution, but I am also a bit wary of any advice that boils down to “avoid this route because it will take real effort and your prof will actually know if you cut corners”.

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17 minutes ago, Hegdis said:

I understand the words of caution, but I am also a bit wary of any advice that boils down to “avoid this route because it will take real effort and your prof will actually know if you cut corners”.

I know what you mean, but I would add that it's just naturally subject to a more exacting standard when the prof is already an expert on the issue. It doesn't necessarily mean the person cut corners, but just that a fairly wet behind the ears law student (relative to the prof) won't even be able to think of angles that the professor has already considered.

I suppose that's true for any topic, but those angles will be more readily apparent to a prof marking thousands and thousands of words of assignments/finals in their busy professor life, if they're already immersed in the topic.

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I wouldn't write on a prof's pet issue just because it is their pet issue. If it also happens to be my pet issue, or if I am genuinely interested in knowing more about it, sure, but it's too suck-uppy and fraught with risk to do that otherwise. A paper is an opportunity for a law student to make a prof think about something in a new way and if you have nothing to say that the prof hasn't already thought of, even if you put in a good effort, your paper may not be that successful.

I would approach an area I am less comfortable with the same way I would approach a familiar area: read journals and articles, find people interested in that area and have discussions with them, re-read my class notes and text and make a brainstorming list of thoughts that come up. Find ways to combine issues you do care about with that class. For example, I took a class in trademarks and patents just out of interest, which was not an area I planned to go in or had a huge familiarity with, and I did my paper on cultural/indigenous knowledge and practices and trademarking (which has been discussed here!) which was a topic that did interest me a lot. My prof's pet issue was drug patents and generic drugs, which was nothing like the topic of my paper, and they really liked the paper.

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23 hours ago, switchdog said:

My process normally involves reading current newsletters and publications in a given practice area and looking for gaps or areas of debate/confusion. However, I have been struggling these last couple of days trying to find a research topic and was looking for some potential new ways to narrow down my research and come up with a topic worthy of discussing for ~30 pages. So, what do you guys do?!

Looking for areas of debate or confusion isn't a bad idea. I started a little broader than that. I looked for a problem. For me, that often meant finding something -- an idea, a judicial decision, a legislative change, a corporate practice -- that I believed was illogical or unjust. Then I tried to narrow it down a little, by identifying what the stupid or unjust parts were. Next, I started trying to apply whatever theories / cases we'd been given in class to the problem, in order to find a solution (in my case, it was often legislative, but depending on the topic, it could be more theoretical, predictive of judicial outcomes, etc) . From this, I'd usually develop some sort of theory of my own, which I could narrow into a question. The answer to that question would generally form my thesis statement.

Maybe this is just me, but I found two things made for good papers. First, I had to ensure that I asked an answerable question. Some of my papers really went off the rails, when I did things like conduct a very broad literature review, or canvass a whole bunch of different theories in my paper to ensure I got the best possible answer. The end product usually had a tonne of loose ends and wasn't very persuasive.

In other cases, I've really tried to narrow in on something specific, like how tax policy instrument X will create a greater increase in labour force participation rate Y, than the legislature current approach of Z. Or how adding language for a specific minimum standards provision in regulation X would create desirable outcome A, whereas the current legislation is ambiguous and has left open the door for courts to create undesirable an undesirable reasonableness approach . In these cases, I had space to work out my reasoning, and usually ended up with good grades and end-products that I was happy with. 

Second, make sure that your paper is about the course material. I think that this is what the above pet project conversation is about. Pet project papers are good, because you're focusing on the relevant issues to the course, insofar as you'd be discussing issues important to the prof, who designed the course you're writing the paper for. However, I don't think that picking a prof's pet issue is the only way to ensure that you're writing a paper about the relevant course material. I just made sure that I was integrating some of the literature, theories, or cases from the syllabus/class into the core of my discussion, and that was usually fine. 

Edited by realpseudonym

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12 hours ago, switchdog said:

It's for a "directed research project", so it is up to me to decide on a practice area, topic, and professor to do the research under. I did some very minor class action research in the past and it interests me, so I have chosen that for my practice area because I want to explore it more, and we don't have a class for it at my law school. I just need to come up with something before approaching a professor and he/she can then help me flesh it out.

There is a law journal devoted specifically to class actions...something like the Canadian Class Action Review.  I'm not sure if it is still the case, but for years they had a prize for the best student paper on class actions each year, so if you do write on that topic, you should consider submitting your paper.  Jasminka, I have no idea how to spell her last name, at Windsor has written extensively on class actions, so have a look at her work.  You should also check out Catherine Piche's work.  I think she's at the University of Montreal.

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For my major research paper (not a DRP, but a paper in a seminar class) I found an article that my Professor had written on a particular subject where I was profoundly against the Prof's position. 

The subject of my paper was a rebuttal of the Prof's argument. 

I think she was amused (and annoyed) by it - but I still did well ;) 

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For something like a DRP, where you don't really have any direction at all, I'd start with a topic you're specifically interested in. Maybe not broad like an area of law like class actions, but an issue or area that you find fascinating. Maybe a case that's in the newspaper, a legal principle you learned about in class that makes your blood boil because it seems stupid, etc. Find something YOU find interesting and make that your topic.

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I also struggled to find a topic for a substantial research paper in law school.  After I finally picked a topic, the next issue hit me like a ton of bricks!  How the heck am I going to write 30 quality pages on that!   Then a buddy gave me advice...… write 3 ten page papers and staple them together.  It worked and I got my curved B.  

Not recommending this approach, just fyi.  But, it did work for me.

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