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Structuring your Legal Research Paper

By Lynne Taylor, from Legal Writing: A Complete Guide for a Career in Law (LexisNexis, 2014)

General format

The final appearance of a research paper generally follows the following format:

Title page
Usual requirements include the title of your paper, your name, your supervisor’s name and the name of the course or programme in which you are enrolled.

This is not a mandatory requirement, but if there is anyone who has given you legitimate assistance to complete your project, you may wish to acknowledge this.

An abstract is an executive summary of your entire research paper. Depending on the nature of the course or programme in which you are enrolled, inclusion of an abstract may or may not be a mandatory requirement.

Table of contents
A table of contents should be set out using the system of headings you employ in the body of the paper.

Body of the paper
The main body of your paper, bracketed by an introduction and conclusion.

A list of the sources you consulted in the course of your research project.

Appendices contain material that is relevant to, and supportive of, the main body of your paper. As an example, in the case of an empirical research project it would be appropriate to include in an appendix copies of any survey forms or questionnaires that were used to collect information. In a doctrinal research project that is heavily focused on a particular statutory provision, it may be appropriate to include a copy of the provision, particularly if it is in a lengthy and complex form.


Structuring the body

As far as structuring the body of the paper is concerned, the path you have followed to generate the solution to your research question will usually provide the structure of the main body of your paper. Imagine that you are explaining the whole of your project to a listener who is hearing about it for the first time. The sequential order in which to present information to a listener is also likely to be a logical order for the body of your paper. In very broad terms, you might begin by explaining the broad context giving rise to your research question; the process or methodology you have employed to answer that question; the information you have collected using that methodology; your analysis of that information; and your argument leading, finally, to the answer to your research question. As an example, the body of a research paper that adopts a mixed methodology to investigate whether a proposed statutory reform will address the mischief at which it is aimed might have the following parts:

  • Introduction;
  • Description of methodology;
  • A section setting out the background and broad context of the subject of the paper;
  • A section on the legal rules that are to be replaced by the proposed reform;
  • A section addressing the work completed by the relevant law reform body;
  • A section addressing the content and effect of the proposed reform;
  • A section presenting the author’s answer to the research question;
  • Conclusion.

The body of your paper will be bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion. An introduction should briefly introduce and set your research question in context and forecast the structure and content of your paper. The conclusion to your paper should briefly summarise the body of your paper and highlight your answer to the question you have investigated.

Employ a system of headings, subheadings and, where appropriate, paragraph headings when setting out the body of your paper. This will not only assist a reader to identify the key parts and overall structure of your paper, but will break up the text and make the paper more attractive to read. Choose titles for headings, subheadings and paragraph headings that are helpful to readers and add to the overall flow of your paper.

Consider whether the transitions between and within parts of your paper need any other special management. Might it assist a reader to include a brief forecast of content at the start of each part of the paper? Alternatively, might you introduce the next part of the paper at the end of the part immediately preceding it?


For more on writing legal research papers and dissertations see Scragg Legal Writing: A Complete Guide for a Career in Law 4th ed (LexisNexis, 2014), chapter 6. Buy the book here.