How to Win a Legal Writing Competition

Law students don’t seem to appreciate how easy it is to win a legal writing competition. Write a good paper on an original topic, and you will stand out from the pack.

Instead, most students gang-tackle the exact same topics, which makes for dreary reading and reduces the odds of saying anything new. For example, I was recently asked to evaluate 5 papers for a copyright law writing competition. Two of the papers were on YouTube’s legal liability. At minimum, I’m going to compare the two against each other, so one of the papers is guaranteed to be DOA. However, it’s pretty hard to say something truly unique and insightful on the topic, so the papers get caught in a bit of a Scattergories problem. As a result, both papers knocked each other out.

Another paper was on Google Libraries. I only got one of those this year, but I’ve seen a dozen or more student papers on the topic in the past. Another Scattergories knock-out.

With respect to both of these “current-event” topics, student papers have an extremely difficult time adding anything new to the conversation. In fact, these three papers said nothing that had not already been thoroughly discussed months or even years ago in the blogosphere. As I’ve said before, with the advent of blogs, law review-style papers on current event topics no longer make sense (if they ever did). If you are a professor supervising student papers, I propose that you add the words “YouTube” and “Google Library” to the list of verboten student paper topics (already on the list: “Grokster” and “online music”).

The fourth paper was a case note on a case interpreting the requirement of 17 USC 411(a) to register the plaintiff’s copyrights before bringing suit. At least this is a different topic, so this paper could have had some legs. Unfortunately, there’s a reason why no one writes on this topic–there’s not much to say, especially in the context of a case note.

The final paper undertook a multi-country comparative analysis of an International copyright treaty in light of the First Amendment. I think it’s hard to find original topics regarding International IP treaties, especially for students, so I don’t know if this paper topic was really new. However, this paper simultaneously undertook three really hard tasks: (1) a constitutional analysis, (2) analysis of an International treaty, and (3) a multi-country comparative analysis. At most, I would counsel students to tackle only one hard task per paper. Doing three in a single paper is fatal for students.

In the end, I didn’t recommend any of these papers for further consideration.

So students, if you’re writing a paper that you want to shine in the writing competitions, spend some time researching and identifying a good topic–not a case note, not a current events topic, not a topic that’s been overgrazed, and not a topic so challenging that you can’t deliver. For more on topic selection, see here.