Tips for Writing a Last-Minute Legal Paper

Published: Nov 09, 2021

Article image

Early in your legal career—whether in law school or practice—you are often given projects with deadlines broken out for you to ensure no last-minute scrambles. As you progress, however, there may come a time when you need to produce a polished work product in a very short window of time. All legal work, from legal research papers to motions, briefs, and related memorandums, requires not only persuasive conclusions, but also authority to support those conclusions. Articles are available with advice on how to write a good paper over the course of a semester, but how do you research and write a competent paper in, say, 48 hours? It’s not easy, but it’s doable—so don’t panic, and follow these tips.

Before you begin, decide how to allocate your time. Can you write a comprehensible paper in one draft, or do you write in a stream of consciousness? If you’re the former, you can divide your time evenly between the research and writing stages. If you’re the latter, you will need to plan for extra writing time to turn that first draft into something coherent to others.

Plan of Attack

Start by reading the prompt. Whether that’s a research question or a genuine fact pattern from a client, this is where it all begins. Make sure you understand what is being asked of you now, so you won’t have to spend precious time changing the course of your paper later. The prompt will also tell you what kind of research you need to do, whether that’s reading scholarly articles or finding cases.

Once you understand the task at hand, sketch out an outline for your paper. List out the major issues to address and decide on an order for where they’ll go in your finished product. You may find yourself adjusting the order or adding sections as you write, but having an initial framework will help direct both your research and your writing efforts. Write an introductory paragraph that summarizes the outline, effectively creating a roadmap for your paper. While you may adjust this too, having an introduction before writing gives you a “North Star” to help guide the rest of your paper.

Hit the Books

Now it’s time to dive into the research. If you will be relying on primary law, use the tips in this article to quickly find relevant cases. You can also use resources like JSTOR, HeinOnline, and other helpful databases to locate scholarly articles. This should be self-evident, but focus your research on cases, statutes, or journal articles rather than internet posts.

As you read, stay focused on how the information can help answer the question(s) your prompt is asking. While a longer writing process allows you to learn about a topic more generally, it’s important to filter out extra noise in the research stage when you’re working under a tight deadline. When you do find a resource that you plan to utilize, add it into your outline under the relevant section(s) you initially listed out. Matching the research to your outline as you go allows you to quickly determine if you need to adjust your strategy or find more support for your position(s).

Just Start Writing

Once you’ve pulled together a good base of resources, it’s time to write. One advantage to legal papers is that it’s entirely appropriate to include a significant number of quotes from your resource material (as long as you properly cite them). This helps get something on the page, alleviating the dread that accompanies a looming deadline and a blank screen. Falling back on IRAC/CREAC can help too, even for practicing attorneys, because it gives you a strong format: laying out the issue to be discussed, stating the relevant rule(s), analyzing the facts based on the rule(s), and drawing conclusions from the analysis.

You can write all your rule sections first (which might help you ease into writing mode), or you can go section by section and draft both the rule and corresponding analysis—use whichever method you think will be fastest for you. If you decide to write just the rule sections first, jot down any analysis thoughts that pop up so you don’t lose them. Having competent analysis shows that you’ve had time to understand the research, consider how it applies to the issue(s) at hand, and formulate your own opinions on how the law should be applied or understood. This is where you are persuading your reader to agree with your forthcoming conclusion, so give it equal time and care as you give to the research sections. Finally, tie it all together with a conclusion that clearly summarizes your main points.

Polish It Up

Once you’ve gotten everything onto the page, step away for 5 or 15 minutes, whatever you have time for. Take a walk, take a shower—just get some space and clear your brain. Then, if you can, print out your paper, as it’s often easiest to catch issues on a physical copy. (If you write in stream of consciousness, now is the time to rework your paper into clear, coherent sections and remove any redundancies. Then take another break before doing the following.) Read your paper, looking for omissions or conflicting statements in your research or your arguments. Consider whether what you’re saying would make sense to another person. Check that your quotes are accurate and properly cited. Once you’ve made these initial revisions, print it again. This time around, look for formatting errors, grammatical errors, spelling errors—all the little things that give a paper polish.

Once you’re satisfied with your revisions and edits, do one last, quick review for content and clarity. Submit… then go take a nap.