Faculty Supervision of Student Seminar Papers

The Goals and Purpose of Faculty Supervision of Student Seminar Papers

Faculty members are often in the position of supervising student writing. In a seminar, the written paper is the heart of the student and faculty’s work together. It is an opportunity to convey to the student an understanding of the faculty member’s role as legal scholar. The students are in effect asked to create a small piece of legal scholarship and the faculty member can help them achieve the scholarly goal of pushing beyond the merely descriptive to the analytical work that we want them to produce.

For many students, the seminar paper will be their first experience with scholarly legal writing. It is therefore very important that the faculty member give the student guidance in understanding the purposes of scholarly writing and the expectations for both the interim pieces and final product. It is helpful to spend part of at least one seminar session talking about what legal scholarship is and what it means to contribute incrementally to the canon in a particular substantive area of law. Many students need guidance in understanding the importance of presenting a clear thesis and organizing the paper around that thesis. There are several articles and texts (listed below) that can aid students in that understanding; it can be very helpful to assign one of these texts to the students.

An additional resource that can help students write better seminar papers is the law school’s Writing Center. Through both group workshops and one-on-one meetings, the Writing Center can help students better to understand both the scholarly writing process and its resulting product. The writing fellows can offer ideas and techniques to assist student at any stage of the scholarly writing process: topic selection, deciding on research strategies, organizing notes, outlining, getting started on the first draft, rewriting and revising. The Writing Center also has a bank of sample student scholarly papers.

It also helps for the faculty to have specific deadlines for each of the interim writing steps in the syllabus and to include even more interim deadlines than are required for the advanced writing requirement. For example, it is useful to give the student a date by which she must select a topic, a date by which she must submit a reading list and her thesis, a date by which she must submit a first draft for written comments and of course, a final deadline by which the paper must be done.

It may be helpful to give the student a structure for a traditional law review article/note/comment. For example, the professor might require that any first draft contain something in each of the following parts of the paper so that feedback is useful. The student might be instructed to organize the paper into five parts with a draft of each due at the time the first draft is due. The faculty member might remind the student that the first goal of legal scholarship is to instruct the reader who is often not familiar with the area generally. So a typical structure might include: Part 1. Introduction: Why the topic is an important problem or issue in the law; Part 2. The legislative or judicial history leading up to the current status quo; Part 3. The positions taken by other scholars in the area; Part 4. The student’s original contribution which may be a proposal for a new legislative or judicial test or an exception to a rule or for example, the addition of one prong of a three- part test, or a critique of the other scholars positions, e.g."Professor X says A and Professor Y says B – both are correct as far as they go, but they should also consider C." and; Part 5. Conclusion.

Students should be encouraged to submit a draft that contains all five parts since feedback on the merely descriptive parts does not give the faculty member the chance to make sure the student is working on an original idea (Part 4) or to give feedback. Most students can write the descriptive part of the paper quite well – it is usually the original idea that needs work and that should be included in the first draft.

Papers written to meet the Advanced Writing Requirement must be of "substantial quality." According to the written requirements, papers less than twenty-five or thirty pages, exclusive of appropriate footnotes, are unlikely to qualify. Students must submit at least one draft of the paper for comment. Thus, a useful guideline for students is that non-cert papers be at least twenty-five pages, inclusive of footnotes while cert papers must be a minimum of forty pages, inclusive of footnotes. The cert paper should demonstrate broader research and more sophisticated analysis than a typical seminar paper. At least one draft of a paper should be required, whether or not the paper is being written to meet the Advanced Writing Requirement.

Whether the student is writing a seminar paper or a cert paper, it is also very helpful to require the student to present her thesis to her colleagues. This gives students experience presenting an academic paper. It also helps to have the colleagues complete peer review forms which are then given to the student author (along with a comment form from the professor) to sharpen the final paper. As faculty members know, teaching a topic is one of the best ways to understand it and fielding questions from a workshop audience helps the author to see weak points in her argument and to vet new approaches to the topic. Giving the students specific guidelines for the required presentation will not only make their presentations more effective, but can also improve the final written product. Sample presentation guidelines are attached.

Comments from the faculty member may come on the paper itself or through a written comment sheet that conforms to the areas on which the paper will be evaluated. These might include: clarity of writing style and organization, originality of thesis, thesis development, use of legal analysis, statutes and case law, breadth of sources and progress from first draft to final paper. Students may meet with faculty individually to discuss these written comments and/or faculty may discuss the writing process in class.

Finally, faculty may encourage students who have written excellent papers to submit them to law reviews for publication. In particular, second journals that specialize in a particular topic are often receptive to student work. In this way, faculty are helping their students become legal scholars and to contribute to the scholarly canon in the area that they have chosen to research.

Professor Paula Monopoli
Professor Susan Hankin

Sample Guidelines for Preparing the Class Presentation1

Oral presentations on the research papers are scheduled for the final four weeks of the semester. You should expect your presentation to be about 15 - 20 minutes long, followed by approximately 20 minutes of questions and discussion. In order to assist your classmates in preparing for your presentation, you must supply the class with reading material at least one full week before you are scheduled to speak. The materials should include an excerpt of your paper and other related readings. You should also consider posting discussion questions to the listserv prior to your presentation.

As you plan the structure of your presentation, consider ways of making the best use of your time. The goal of the presentation is to teach your colleagues the important, primary issues that have grown out of your research for the paper, and how you think these issues should be resolved (in effect, your thesis). In furtherance of this goal, think about the best way to present your points:

  1. Keep your presentation concise and focused. Start by introducing your topic, explaining why it is important, summarizing any needed background information, and setting forth your thesis. In many ways, the form of the presentation’s introduction follows the form of the paper’s introduction. Follow your introduction by setting out the main issues you addressed, what methods you used to resolve them, and what conclusions you therefore reached.
  2. Consider using the board, an overhead, or a handout.2 Creating a visual aid will not only help you better understand your issues; it will also help the class learn the about the issues in more than one way.
  3. Use a hypothetical, case study, or narrative to illustrate your problem in a more concrete fashion. After giving an overview of the topic and indicating where the issues you are addressing fit in, it often helps to use one of these techniques to present the problem more concretely. Alternatively, you might want to start your presentation with the hypothetical, case study, or narrative to draw in the class’s interest and highlight the importance of the problem.

1 From Susan Hankin’s Public Health and the Law Seminar, as adapted from Oral Presentation Guidelines prepared by Paula Monopoli.
2Note that these guidelines were prepared before student use of Powerpoint became so widespread. If I were rewriting these guidelines today, I would include some cautions on effective and ineffective use of Powerpoint technology.


Resources for Faculty:

Elizabeth Fajans and Mary R. Falk, Comments Worth Making: Supervising Scholarly Writing in Law School, 46 J. LEG. EDUC. 342 (1996).

David Post, Writing Guidelines: General Principles & Rules Of Thumbhttp://www.temple.edu/lawschool/dpost/guidelines.PDF (January 2004).

Eugene Volokh, Test Suites: A Tool For Improving Student Articles, 52 J. LEG. EDUC. 440 (2002).

Resources for Students:


Elizabeth Fajans and Mary R. Falk, Scholarly Writing for Law Students (2d ed. 2000).

Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, and Seminar Papers (2002).


David Post, Writing Guidelines: General Principles & Rules Of Thumbhttp://www.temple.edu/lawschool/dpost/guidelines.PDF (January 2004).

Eugene Volokh, Test Suites: A Tool For Improving Student Articles, 52 J. LEG. EDUC. 440 (2002).

Eugene Volokh, Writing A Student Article, 48 J. LEG. EDUC. 247 (1998).


George Washington University Law School Committee on Academic Integrity, Citing Responsibly: A Guide to Avoiding Plagiarismhttp://www.law.gwu.edu/forms/Citing_Responsibly_02.pdf (Summer 2002).