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Finding a Paper Topic


How to Use this Guide

This guide is aimed at law students, primarily LL.M.s, beginning the process of finding and narrowing a topic for a research paper.

Paper topic ideas may come from your lectures or course readings. Topics might come from your previous studies, work history or life experience. But, sometimes your initial subject idea is too broad, or you are interested in multiple subject areas. This guide will walk you though sources which will help you gain a sense of legal developments (if any) on your subject. It will also list sources that help you begin to find the academic conversation happening on a topic.

By browsing, searching, and reading broadly in these sources, you will hopefully find a topic that is deeply interesting to you. Enough so that you will stay engaged and motivated during the entirety of the writing process.

For HLS LL.M.s, this guide will provide links to sources from the Graduate Program which will help you determine if your topic is sufficiently narrow. It concludes with suggestions about how to identify possible HLS faculty supervisors.

Once you have decided on your topic, it is an appropriate time to request a research consult with a librarian. They can assist you by identifying targeted research sources and search strategies.

What are the blogs talking about?

Using Blogs for Paper Topics

Blogs can be helpful to see what is "hot" in a particular field of law on a more current basis than traditional scholarly sources such as books or law review articles. You can browse them by topic area or run searches for some of your initial ideas.

Blog/Blawg Directories

What current awareness sources should I know about?

Specialized News Databases

Legal news sites will alert you to interesting litigation and policy developments. Like browsing blogs, legal news sources can help you identify legal developments that might serve as a good topic.   

Legal Updates from Law Firms

Law firms often post public entries of interest to potential clients. These marketing materials are usually well crafted and cover new developments. The following sites aggregate this content for collective searching.

Google Scholar

Using Google can be a good starting point, but using Google Scholar is a more efficient way to find academic content. Even better, using Harvard Google Scholar will (usually) allow you to link through to content available to you through Harvard Library subscriptions.

Working Papers Repositories

After browsing widely through current awareness services for ideas, hopefully you’re starting to have a few possible topics. Digging into working papers is a good next step in comparing your topic options. Working paper repositories host collections of scholarly articles. They include those not yet published or in final form. The benefit of searching in working paper repositories is to gain a sense of the current academic conversation on a topic.

What's being discussed in the academic journals?

Law Journal Articles

As you explore possible topics, beyond searching through current sources, it's important to explore the published literature on the topic. This is the stage where you are both refining your topic and beginning your research.

There are many sources to find law journal articles. Below are some of the main collections of legal literature and good starting points. Be aware that these collections are very large. Putting in one or two search terms may result in large result lists, so consider searching with multiple keywords, phrases, etc. For assistance with advanced search techniques, please Ask a Librarian.

Academic Articles, Books and Book Chapters

It is beyond the scope of this guide to cover specialized sources for non-U.S. and International law and legal literature. Neither does this guide cover sources for law-related literature, such as the literature of political science, economics, gender studies, etc. To find academic journal content across disciplines, the best starting point is to use HOLLIS.

What have other dissertations or papers covered?

Dissertations, Theses and Papers

As you refine your topic ideas, it is often helpful to browse the titles of dissertations and papers by SJDs, LLMs, or JD students, either generally, or those which touch on your subject area. This can help you understand how people have framed their research topic in a discrete, specific way. See additional sources for student-authored works in HLS Dissertations, Theses and Third Year Papers.

How do I find a Faculty Advisor?

Tips on Finding a Faculty Advisor

LL.M. written work requires faculty supervision. The following sources will help you identify HLS faculty members by research interests. You can also view HOLLIS records of LL.M. papers to identify the HLS professors who supervised papers in your subject area.

Refining Your Topic

Tips for Refining a Topic

As you’ve browsed blogs, news, law reviews and other LL.M. papers, you have hopefully arrived at some topic ideas that are original and will hold your continued interest as you write the paper. It is also important to refine your paper topic to a discrete, narrow idea. Resources to help you make sure your topic is sufficiently narrow are included in the HLS Graduate Program Writing Resources Canvas Site. See especially: 

  • The Six-Point Exercise in the module “Developing Your Proposal and Drafting Your Paper”
  • Worksheets for Senior Thesis Writers and Others in the module “Recommended Materials on Writing”
  • This publicly available excerpt from a prior edition of Volokh's book contains the chapter on Choosing a Claim. See the section beginning on page 25.

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