There are two reasons why a law student might choose to enroll in an independent study and research course: 1) as an opportunity to research and write about a topic of interest; and 2) to shore up a credit deficiency in the last semester of law school. On the first day of my last semester, I discovered that I was one credit short to maintain my full-time status. The most convenient option was to register for an independent study course. After lots of contemplation about possible topics, finding a member of the faculty to supervise my work, and a cursory glance at the literature to make sure it was a viable topic, I was ready to get to work. Almost immediately, I recognized the challenges associated with focus and being disciplined. Here are a few tips to help keep you on track.
This is true throughout the process, but it’s a bad idea to start by putting things off. As soon as you know the who and what of your project, it’s time to meet with your faculty supervisor and set up a schedule. This will go a long way to give you mileage markers throughout the semester. By establishing deadlines and expectations from both sides, everyone becomes a bit more accountable. A mutually developed schedule is key to keeping the work flowing.
Even with a clear schedule and deadlines, it’s easy for an independent study project to get neglected by both the law student and his or her faculty supervisor. There is no class, there is no syllabus, it’s just the efforts of the student, the guidance of a faculty supervisor, and the work. It’s easy for the work to fall off of everyone’s radar unless there are some accountability points. It’s a good idea to have regular, scheduled meetings (via Facetime, email, or in person) to discuss progress, challenges, questions, etc. These are a good way to ensure that the student keeps working throughout the semester and that the professor doesn’t lose sight of his or her responsibility to guide and grade. Setting up these regular meetings early is vital to success.
Turn in Drafts for Feedback
Meetings and schedules are great, but in order to be truly accountable one must feel the pressure of submitted drafts. Of course, the student has to discuss this with the professor (the professor may not want to grade fourteen drafts of a thirty-five-page paper) but incorporating one or two draft versions of the work, before the final submission, serves several purposes. First, it creates urgency and accountability for the student to continue the work throughout the semester. Second, it will hopefully provide opportunity for valuable feedback from the professor about the research, the writing, possible follow-up papers, the ability to get published, etc. Drafts are a great way to keep the lines of communication open and to ensure that the project is not forgotten by anyone involved.
Breaks Are a Good Time to Work
Of course, fall, winter, and spring breaks are a great time to put law school aside and relax. On the other hand, breaks are also a great time to focus on an independent study project, possibly work ahead, and get a draft submitted for review. At no other time will you have the ability to ignore your other classes and shift focus to research and writing. Most of the time, faculty will be available to answer questions or provide guidance. Without the distractions of class readings, speaking in class, and exams you can be productive if you use that time wisely.
Know Where You Are Going Before You Set Out
This is an overarching, continuous strategy to keep things moving: understand what your final project should look like. Know the length, have a basic outline, and understand what the final draft should look like (tone, format, etc.). If you have a firm grasp of what your research and writing should look like at the end, it will keep you focused and minimize the possibility of chasing down rabbit holes after interesting threads in your research. Of course, you should make note of other areas worthy of research but be wary of any counter-productive time wasting. Research the law, research the cases, figure out what you want to say about them, and write a compelling article. Knowing where you want your research and paper to be in the final draft will keep you on task throughout the research and drafting process.
Don’t Write About the Law of Basket Weaving (unless you want to)
Picking a topic, area of law, or legal problem that really interests you or ignites your passion is critical for a self-driven, independent-study project. If you are less than excited by the research and writing, there is absolutely no way that you will stay focused and on task. Picking something of interest to you will likely result in higher quality work product and possibly create an opportunity to get something published. If you’re not on law review, this is another avenue to publication, which can help with your post-graduate job search.
Working independently without the structure of a class and syllabus is a challenge, even for the most disciplined law student. It’s critical to keep the research and writing train on the tracks, because the benefits of a job well done are significant. You should dedicate no less effort to an independent study course than any other law school class. You got this!
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