My Advice for Law School Exam Test Takers. Tip #3: How to Write a Seminar Paper in 1 Week

December 3rd, 2009

Check out my previous two tips on how to tackle law school exams (here and here).

Tip #3: How to Write a Seminar Paper in 1 Week.

The Fall of my 3L year, I took 8 classes: 5 Seminar Papers and 3 exams. My strategy not only got me through that hellish period, but I also scored my best grades of law school that Semester.

Let me guess? You registered for a seminar class, thinking that you would write the paper during the Semester, and that would give you more time to study during the finals period, right? Face it. You didn’t do it. I fell victim to this pitfall every Semester, and invariably waited till the last minute.

So here is how I go about cramming an entire paper in 1 week. You need at least 4 or 5 days to write it, and 1 or 2 days to edit it. Anything less is selling yourself short.

Remember, this is not law review. Those of you on a journal may be tempted to approach this paper the same way you approach a Student note or comment. Those of you not on a journal may be intimidated, and fear that you are unable to write something of publishable quality. Remember, a seminar paper is not a law review paper. For my thoughts on academic writing, see this post. But these tips will not aid you during finals cram period.

Here’s what you have to do:

  • Hopefully at this point the Professor has approved your topic. But, approval is very nebulous. Often a topic evolves/is evolving, and a Professor may approve of your paper as it moves towards a general direction, but you lack concrete approval of what you are writing. If you have less than 1 week, and you don’t have concrete approval, don’t count on it. Professors are notoriously picky about this, and feel that if you wait till the end, you have to deal with it. I fell victim to this several times, and an A paper was dropped to a B paper for lack of topic approval.
  • Be smart on research. You do not have time to read entire cases and treatises. One of the quickest shortcuts is to read reputable law review articles. The article will summarize the topic, and in the footnotes you will find links to all relevant secondary sources. Also, if you are short on time, I would advise you not to waste your time with books. Combing through the library is so time-consuming. Stick to WestLaw/Lexis during the crunch. HeinOnline is also your friend, but try to focus on full-text search databases.
  • Get a solid outline first. This is the key to writing under pressure. If you start writing paragraphs without an outline, you will need to go back and re-edit a lot of stuff. But, if your outline is complete at the beginning, stick with it. This will save you a lot of time.
  • Hit home your thesis. Make sure you mention a coherent thesis throughout the paper. If you cannot fully justify it, acknowledge possible alternative arguments. But show that you are able to explain a cogent thought. If you are wishy-washy, the Professor can easily deduct points.
  • Write a killer introduction/conclusion. Professors will of course read every word, but the first and last impression will help solidify the grade. I would sometimes spend half a day or maybe an entire day getting the intro down pat. Read some good law review articles and see how they condense an entire article into a few page intro. Emulate that.

Here’s what you do not have to do:

  • You do not need to come up with some original, insightful topic that no one has ever thought of before. This is the province of law review, not seminars. Just write a good explanation of some area of the law, preferably something that related to your class discussion and something your professor will find interesting.
  • Don’t try to impress the Professor in their area of expertise. You won’t. I once wrote a paper on the 2nd Amendment for a Professor who is one of the leading 2nd Amendment scholars on Earth. I did well on the paper, but I had to work that much harder because my grader could easily call BS if I messed up.
  • Keep track of the marginal cost of moving from B+ to A- to A to A+. Every incremental increase will require an increasingly significant amount of work. Remember that you have other exams to study for at the same time. It may be worth it to produce a B+ paper if it gives you enough time to get a B+ on an exam, rather than exerting yourself significantly for an A- paper, and depriving you of time to study, forcing you to get a C+ on the exam. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, but you should not overwork the paper.
  • Bluebook well, but don’t waste your time bluebooking perfectly. This one troubles me, because footnote accuracy is so important. But when you are under the gun, if you need to sacrifice something, sacrifice the bluebook. Make sure everything is properly attributed, but if you forgot to italicize supra or are missing a parenthetical, don’t sweat it. This will generally lose you  a minimal number of points. Rather focus on the substance. You can win much more points here.

If you are anything like me, you will also have to study for exams while writing papers. I recommend you write in the morning, when you are fresh, and study in the evening when you are tired. As difficult as studying is, it is more mechanical. You go through an outline, or a textbook with less effort. With writing, you are putting words to paper, and it requires a lot of creative juices.

Thoughts? Comments?

Check in for Tip #4 Tomorrow.

Disclaimer: Caveat emptor. Take this advice at your own peril. If it doesn’t work, don’t complain. If it works, I appreciate gift cards.