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Directed Research Projects

Select a Research Topic

One of the most important yet challenging aspects of a directed research project forming an appropriate research question or topic. Your research process will be much easier if you have a well-defined, manageable research topic. If you need help finding a research question, 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--especially faculty members and/or your faculty advisor
  • Keeping up-to-date with current affairs, e.g. news items can generate topic ideas

Working with a Faculty Advisor and the Library

Petition process:

  • A student may petition for "Directed Research: Curricular Development" when they have a project that involves assisting a Law School faculty member in developing concepts or materials for new and innovative law school courses.
  • Both the supervising faculty member and the Associate Dean for Curriculum must approve petition for "Directed Research: Curricular Development."
  • Students must meet with the instructor frequently for the purposes of report and guidance.
  • Unit credit is by arrangement. Keep in mind that with the approval of the instructor, successful completion of a directed research project of two units or more may satisfy the JD writing requirement to the extent of one research writing course (R course).
  • Directed Research petitions are available on the Law School Registrar's Office website (see Forms and Petitions). 

Connecting with a faculty member for directed research projects: 

  • There are several ways to connect with faculty members at SLS for directed research projects: 
    • Sometimes, a faculty member will reach out directly to students and/or a group of students to gauge interest in a directed research project. Before committing yourself to the project, ask questions to get a better feel for the project subject and scope. Make sure you are interested in the topic before committing to move forward. 
    • You can meet with faculty after class or during office hours to discuss potential directed research projects that interest you. Make sure your proposed research idea/project matches with the faculty member's area of expertise. Do have an idea about your proposed research topic and be sure you have done at least a cursory look at what has already been published.
    • If you aren't sure about a topic but would still like to work on a directed research project, consider talking with faculty members about what research interests the faculty has. Also consider topics you've enjoyed in various courses and/or faculty members you like working with.
  • After connecting with a faculty member, you need to confirm if they are willing and/or able to sponsor your directed research project. 
    • Be mindful that in addition to teaching courses, doing their own research, and mentoring students, faculty members do a variety of work for the law school. They may already have students that they are doing directed research with and/or additional time commitments, so they may decline to serve as your faculty supervisor.
    • It is helpful to have had a course with the professor before (or to be in class with them currently) and for them to at least be able to recognize you as a familiar face.
  • Before approaching a faculty member with an idea or ideas regarding directed research, it is advisable for you to come talk to the library first. 

Connecting with the library for directed research projects: 

  • You are encouraged to work with the library at all stages of your directed research project, even before you've met and confirmed the project with a faculty member. Visit the library to help refine your research question, plan out research timing, and ensure you're contributing to an academic conversation. 
  • Appointments are strongly encouraged for directed research projects. Students can connect with a librarian and then meet with that same librarian several times throughout your research process. Appointments can be made through the library website
  • If you don't see an appointment time that works for you, you can either email a librarian directly to request a time that does fit into your schedule, or you can hop in the Reference Office Zoom Room
  • Feel free to send questions related to directed research projects via email to

Design Flaws to Avoid

Your research plan will help establish the timeline, decision making process, and final structure for your directed research project. Taking the time to develop a thorough research plan helps to organize your thoughts, set the boundaries of your research, ensure that your findings are reliable and up to date, and allow for room to check back through your work. Therefore, it is essential to develop a research plan before beginning the legal research process.

When developing your plan, avoid these common pitfalls (listed in no particular order): 

  • Overly broad research questions: Overly broad research questions will often result in extraneous research on topics that extend beyond your research project. To avoid too broad of a question, consider the follow:
    • You're finding too much information; you're finding hundreds upon hundreds of articles/cases that are related to your topic. 
    • Information you find seems broken into specific aspects of the topic.
    • Your topic could be summed up in one or two words (for example, "environmental law" or "animal law")
    • Rule of thumb: If entire books have been written on your subject it is too broad.  A good topic will address a specific question.
  • Research questions that are too narrow: Sometimes research questions are too narrow, and there isn't enough out there to research. A research question is probably too narrow if you run into the follow:
    • You can't find enough information and what you do find is tangential or irrelevant.
    • You find information that is so specific that it can't lead to any significant conclusions.
    • Your sources cover so few ideas that you can't expand them into a significant paper.
    • The research problem is so case specific that it limits opportunities to generalize or apply the results to other contexts.
  • Research questions that won’t keep you interested: If you aren't interested in a research topic at the start of your directed research, chances are your lack of interest won't change while you're digging through resources. 
  • Does your research question fit into an academic conversation? When developing a research project within the context of prior research, don't just note that a gap exists; be clear in describing how your study contributes to, or possibly challenges, existing assumptions or findings.
  • Significance: Your research design must include a clear answer to the "So What?" question. Be sure you clearly articulate why your directed research is important and how it contributes to the larger discussion about the topic being investigated.
  • Poorly defined research question: The starting point of most new research in the legal field is to formulate a problem statement and begin the process of developing questions that address the problem. Your paper should outline and explicitly delimit the problem and state what you intend to investigate since it will determine what your research plan will look like.

Glossary of Common Legal Research Terms

Legal dictionaries can be helpful for directed research projects because the legal definition of a term will often differ from the non-legal definition of a term. During the research process, look up terms you encounter to verify that your interpretation of the word is correct. Black's Law Dictionary is the most commonly used legal dictionary in the United States. The 11th edition (2019) is available in Westlaw and in print at the Law Library's Borrowing Services Desk. 

General Legal Research Terms (the following list is a non-exhaustive, quick reference tool for words and/or phrases that commonly show up when discussing or mapping out a directed research project): 

ALR: American Law Reports. Large, secondary research resource consisting of multi-jurisdictional, in-depth articles (called “annotations”) on specific legal topics. Available online and in print. 

ALR: Alternative meaning: At many law schools, Advanced Legal Research, or ALR, is an upper level research course.

Analogize: To take the facts, rationale or argument of a written decision and explain how the argument relates to your case/issue.

Annotated Code: A set of state or federal statutes that contains not only the wording of the statutes, but also research references, such as cases that have interpreted the statute or articles that have examined the ramifications of a statute.

Bluebook: Officially titled,The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, also known as the Harvard Bluebook. Currently in its 21st Edition, The Bluebook gives examples and states the citation rules used by lawyers and judges when writing briefs or opinions.   

Brief: A written, legal argument that conforms to specific court rules, in which a lawyer advances the merits of his or her client's case.  A brief usually includes a statement of the questions the lawyer wants the court to consider, the law the court should apply to answer those questions, and an argument that applies the law to the factual circumstances the lawyer wants the court to adopt. 

Case: A decision by a court. Also referred to as "case law" or an "opinion." Cases from a particular court or a group of courts are printed in books called reporters. Cases are also available in electronic databases.  

Circuit - or Judicial Circuit: A Federal appellate court division. There are 13 United States Courts of Appeal, including the First through the Eleventh Circuits (based on groups of states), and the District of Columbia Circuit. 

Citation: A reference to a legal precedent or authority (primary or secondary) such as a case, statute or treatise. Case citation: The alpha numeric identifier provided to enable researchers to locate written decisions. The format usually consists of a volume number, the abbreviated reporter name, and a page or paragraph number. (e.g. 268 N.E.2d 1247).  Citations are also used to find a resource in an electronic database. Consult The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, 21st ed. for correct citation formats. 

Citators: A tool used in legal research to update legal authorities by listing their subsequent history and treatment. Also provide additional research references to primary and secondary resources citing your original document.

Code: A set of state or federal statutes arranged by subject matter rather than in the order the laws were passed.  Also shorthand for an administrative code, which is not a statute, but a regulation, so one must be careful to understand the difference.  

Digest: Digests are indexed, secondary sources that provide a means of finding cases by searching with subject terms, keywords and phrases, and party names, leading to case citations. Digests exist in print and online. 

District: A court division. At the federal level, trial courts are called District Courts. 

Headnote: A summary of a specific point of law taken from a published case opinion and arranged with other headnotes by subject in a digest.  The headnotes derived from a particular case opinion are set out at the beginning of the written case opinion in a reporter.  Headnotes are written by editors and are not part of the court’s decision. 

Keycite: The Westlaw citator providing the prior and subsequent history of cases, statutes, and regulations, as well as a list of other cases and publications mentioning the case or statute (citing references). Used to check the continued validity of a point of statutory or case law and to locate other similar cases. Often used as a verb.  "Did you KeyCite that?" 

Key Number System: A unique and consistent topic and number approach to locating points of law throughout any jurisdiction within the West digest and reporting system. Each point of law within a case opinion is assigned a topic and “key number” that represents a specific sub-topic. The points of law are then arranged by topic and key number within a digest, and can be researched accordingly.

Loose-Leaf: A set of explanatory materials that is updated regularly by inserting new pages within the existing pages. Some loose-leafs are updated by adding new material at the end of the set. When using this type of loose-leaf, the added material needs to be consulted as well as the text. A large percentage of Marquette’s loose-leaf material is located on the second floor of the collection. 

Opinion: A judicial decision. 

Periodical: A serial (journal, magazine) which is published at regular intervals, is numbered, contains separate articles, and has no pre-determined end date. Does not include newspapers or conference proceedings.  

Pocket Part: Supplementary material inserted into the back of a volume of code, treatise or other legal research material. The pocket part updates the contents of the volume from the date of publication to the date of the supplement. When using a print resource, make sure to check the pocket part and/or supplements for updated information, and note the currency of the update. 

Primary Source: Constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, case law, and treaties are primary law. Primary sources ARE law. Compare to Secondary Source, below. 

Regional: As in “regional reporters.” Regional reporters publish court opinions from courts within a group of states.

Regulation: A rule of law issued by the executive branch of a government through an administrative agency. Regulations may be codified into an administrative code such as the Wisconsin Administrative Code or the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. 

Reporter: Generic name given to volumes containing court opinions from a particular jurisdiction or opinions from one subject area. The reporters may be official or unofficial as stated by governmental authority. Reporter citations are used to identity cases in a brief or other court pleading. 

Restatements: The Restatements of Law have been published by the American Law Institute ("ALI") since the 1930s. The Restatements are summaries of law written with the goal of distilling a legal subject into precise and succinct statements. 

Secondary Source: Any source that is not the actual law, but rather is an explanation or analysis of the law. Legal encyclopedias, treatise, articles, restatements, and books are secondary sources, as are attorney general opinions. See, Primary Source, above. 

Shepardize: Verb originally meaning to check the validity of a case using Shepard’s or another citator. Occasionally used as a generic term for checking the validity of a case or statute using a method incorporating a history check and a citing references check. "Don't forget to Shepardize!"  Shepard's was the first broadly used legal citator, named after Frank Shepard, who invented the original, print citator system. 

Shepard’s: The Lexis citator that provides the prior and subsequent history of a case, statute, or regulation, and lists cases and other sources that have cited it (citing references). Used to check the continued validity of a statute or point of case law, and to locate other similar law. 

Slip Opinion: Print form of a court opinion issued soon after the announcement of the decision of the court. Slip opinions provide access to case decisions before cases are published in bound reporters. 

Statute: Generally refers to a law enacted by either by a state legislature or by Congress. A statute is sometimes referred to as a law or code section.

Supplement: A tool used to update a legal resource. Some supplements are stand-alone volumes containing new material. Other resources are supplemented by pocket parts or by newly added pages (as in a loose-leaf publication). In addition to the resource itself, its supplement(s) must be checked in order to obtain the most current information. 

Title: Can be a subject area in a state statutory or administrative code or in the United States Code, such as Criminal Law or Copyright Law, or in the Code of Federal Regulations. A part of an act as passed by Congress can also be called a title, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. 

Treatise: Explanatory material on a subject area, such as bankruptcy or contract law. Treatises may be single volume works or multi-volumes works. 

Unannotated Code: Laws of a jurisdiction that contain only the words of the law, but no research references. 

**Credit for this glossary goes to Eckstein Law Library.