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Selecting and Developing a Legal Research Topic

The purpose of this guide is to assist students who are writing a legal research paper and need help selecting a topic and developing a thesis.

Finding a Topic

One of the most important yet challenging aspects of writing a research paper is selecting an appropriate topic.  When selecting a topic, make sure that it is interesting to you and your audience, well-defined, manageable, novel and worthy of publication. If you need help finding a research topic, you can start by:

  • Examining legal developments
  • Searching for a novel case or a legal issue where courts have split on their interpretation of the law
  • Browsing recent scholarly publications
  • Mining topic ideas, including calls for papers and writing competitions
  • Talking to people
  • Keeping up-to-date with current affairs, e.g. news items can generate topic ideas

The Law Library has numerous resources listed on this page to assist you in selecting your topic.  If you get stuck or need customised advice, please email us at: law-library@unimelb.edu.au

Novel Cases

A common approach to finding a topic is to focus on a case that raises a novel issue of law. To find these cases, search for legal developments (see Legal Developments) or browse recent cases before the Australian High Court or highest appellate court in other countries.

The following blogs also contain valuable information about High Court/Supreme Court decisions:

Unresolved Legal Issues

Another common approach to finding a research topic is to examine an unresolved legal issue. Unresolved legal issues can occur when courts have split in their interpretation of the law, leaving the ultimate meaning of the law unresolved.  In the United States, this is known as a 'circuit split' because it is based on federal circuit courts interpreting the same legal issue differently. These sorts of issues are ripe for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. 

A research topic may describe the split, identify any issues that may be influencing the courts, and propose a way to distinguish the situations or resolve the discrepancy.  These topics can be very timely and relevant.  However, if the discrepancy is resolved before your paper is completed, the topic can be rendered entirely obsolete.  Because these topics are so popular in the United States, there are resources dedicated solely to tracking circuit splits, including the following:

Law Library Catalogue - e-books & print materials

Use introductory texts to begin your research. These will help you structure your research and point to key issues that may be appropriate for a research topic.

1. To find print and e-books, search the Library catalogue for your topic in the keyword field e.g. international humanitarian law.

 or

2. Browse the shelves according to call numbers. Books will be shelved by call numbers according to their subject matter.