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APUS Legal Studies Program Writing Guide

Research Papers

In many of your classes, you will write an analytical research paper after reviewing and analyzing the applicable literature. First, you must decide on a topic for your paper and construct a thesis. In a research paper, a thesis statement should explain what your paper is about. In formulating your thesis, first focus on a general topic (e.g., the Fourth Amendment). Then, narrow the topic (e.g., search and seizure/exclusionary rule). Finally, restrict it even further (e.g., drug possession).

Ideally, in the course of examining your sources, you will discover that they answer your research question. This answer is your thesis.

Thesis Statements

A thesis statement must meet the following standards:

  • It is an emphatic statement that requires an argument.
  • It is testable (by the evidence you cite).
  • It does not necessarily give a right or wrong answer. Instead, it should illuminate a point that is debatable. The job of the writer is to present readers with a valid argument.

Always ask yourself: Does this thesis hold up in light of the new evidence I have uncovered? In writing your paper, you must be willing to modify the thesis as the evidence directs you.

A research paper is essentially an argument about your thesis, based on facts. It is not an opinion piece, a philosophical discussion, or a rant. Words such as “I think,” “I believe,” and so forth are not proper. In your research paper, you will use facts, which you will cite, to arrive at a logical conclusion. Even if your topic is controversial in nature, the purpose of an analytical research paper is to critically analyze the relevant literature, not convince the audience of the correctness of your position.

Tips for Researching and Writing Research Papers

Start early. Start your research early.

Scholarly Sources. Use only reputable scholarly sources. These sources will be either primary or secondary sources. Wikipedia and other similar websites are neither reputable nor scholarly, so do not use them. Examples of reputable, scholarly sources are as follows:

  • Primary sources:

        Case law



        Administrative agency materials / regulations

  • Secondary sources:

        Legal encyclopedias

        Peer-reviewed articles (such as law review articles and professional journals)

        Peer-reviewed studies

  • You can also use blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, books, interviews, and transcripts from radio and television programs, but they should be used in addition to more scholarly sources. Additionally, if you are writing about a case, read the case. If you are using statutory law, read the statute and its legislative history. 
  • Note that it is necessary to research both sides of your issue.
  • Westlaw and LexisNexis are the two most common search engines used in the legal profession. APUS offers the LexisNexis database available to you free in the APUS Library. LexisNexis provides access to more than 10,000 news, business, and legal sources, as well as Shepard’s Citations from 1789 to present. Other available legal databases in the library include Loislaw and JSTOR. There also are a variety of legal search engines available on the open web. Examples include LexisWeb, Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII), and FindLaw. Additionally, the APUS Library offers a Legal Studies Program Guide that provide a great deal of helpful information to assist you in your research.

Organize. Organize your research from the start. Maintain a list of your sources, complete with proper Bluebook citations. As you take notes, track the source and the page number. Make sure you identify quotes clearly and confirm that they are accurate.

Outline. Before you start writing the paper, draft an outline. The outline should be a working document that helps you to organize your thoughts and to figure out how you will use your sources and where you will place information in the paper. The outline will change as you develop your paper’s structure. Start with the basic structure and progress to the details as you go. Every paper must have an introduction and a conclusion, as well as a body. The more detailed your outline is, the easier it will be to build and write your paper. There is a separate chapter in this writing guide concerning detailed outlines.

Once you are familiar with the information found within your sources, start to formulate an outline for your paper to organize your thoughts in a logical form.

Your paper should consist of five parts:

  1. Title page
  2. Introduction
  3. Findings of primary and secondary sources
  4. Analysis
  5. Conclusion

You may integrate sources into the paper by paraphrasing content or quoting directly. As a general rule, direct quotations should be kept to a minimum, and long quotes should be used sparingly.

The preferred method is to paraphrase or summarize information from a source by putting the information in your own words. However, it is important to note that whether you paraphrase, summarize, or quote directly, you must cite the source.

Grab the Reader’s Attention.  Look for an attention-grabber to pique your reader’s interest. Professors get bored reading boring papers toomake it interesting! Your professor will love you for it. A good technique is to find a quote to start off with. Your goal must be to grab the reader’s attention and hold it until the end of your paper.

Writing Mechanics

  • Avoid using first person in all of its forms (I, we, us, etc.).
  • Avoid using contractions.
  • The first time you want to use an abbreviation or an acronym, write it out and put the abbreviation in parenthesis. Example: The Department of Justice (DoJ) is headquartered in Washington, D.C.. The DoJ website contains a wealth of helpful information.
  • Do not start a sentence with an abbreviation or acronym. Write it out. 
  • Use active voice. Example: 

        Passive voice: The President was elected by the voters and was given a mandate to fix the health care system.

        Active voice: The voters elected the President, giving him a mandate to fix the health care system.

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