What is an independent studies course?


An independent studies course provides the opportunity to do research with a faculty supervisor. Unlike a regular course, students taking an independent course are expected to do research and to write on their own under the guidance of a faculty supervisor. Students need to be more organized and focused about what they do than in a regular course. It takes high levels of discipline, self-motivation and creativity to do research in an independent course.


What are the main goals of an independent studies course?


Given the nature of the course, you can set your own objectives in consultation with your faculty supervisor. In general, in your research and writing process, you will learn about disciplinary writing conventions, how to collect data in the Law and Justice fields, how to work with primary and secondary sources, how to organize a text, and how to assess the social consequences of legal norms and doctrines.


What is the difference between a term paper and a research project in an independent studies course?


The purpose of the independent course is to learn how to produce a scholarly work. This is best achieved in a cycle of writing, receiving feedback, and rewriting. Students are expected to re-write their drafts several times in order to incorporate feedback from the faculty supervisor. In this sense, writing is not a one-shot, all-or-nothing venture. It has several stages, each with its own criteria of excellence.


Traditionally, students generally write a term paper by doing whatever reading or research is required throughout the term and working out the paper in their head as they go along. But they write only one draft, perhaps after making an outline, usually the night before handing it in. Like a Japanese brush painting, students do it, and either it’s OK or it isn’t. This is because, in general, college students have no time for rewriting, since they often have several papers due at the same time.


What is the prevailing legal writing style in academic legal publications?


The prevailing academic legal writing style is that of US law journals. They have exported their styles and it is considered –albeit with some differences- mainstream legal writing style in many parts of the world now. The following are its main characteristics.


1)   You must cite every statement of fact. This is because legal tradition is very conservative and you must find authority, i.e., a source, whether a judicial precedent, a law, or another author, for virtually everything you write. Almost everything you say must be supported by a source that said that before you. So, there is very little possibility of introducing new or innovative ideas in a traditional formal legal work.

2)   There is a system called preemption check. A preemption check involves searching to see whether someone else has already published on the same topic you would like to write your article on, and which develops the same thesis you would like to develop with the same focus you would like to take. So, if you want to publish in a law journal, taking into account the over-reliance on authority and the preemption check, you may only say very narrow issues. Just think about it. First, you must find support for what you want to say. And then your thesis or conclusions must be different. So, there are lots of ideas and arguments that will not find room in law journals. So, what is actually published is quite irrelevant, and it always adheres to the predominant legal theoretical views.

3)   You must follow a very structured citation method.

4)   The writing style is full of arcane vocabulary and a syntax which is characteristic of law journal articles. Legal scholars seldom use the first person. They would say, for example, “part I of the article deals with the examination of the application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine” instead of “I analyze how courts applied a certain extra-contractual doctrine in part I of this article.” This is because legal scholars need to differentiate themselves from laypeople.

5)   While anyone can publish a legal article in a Law Journal, publication in legal journals is a turf dominated by Law School professors. In the US, Law School professors do not usually have a Ph.D. or even a master’s degree. They simply have a J.D., which is a professional degree. The nature of Law School education in North America is undergraduate. Students do not do research, they do not write a thesis, and the writing of papers is very limited. So, unlike their colleagues in all other disciplines, Law Professors do not have experience in research and writing. They have to publish articles in law journals to advance in their teaching careers. They publish articles to make up for their lack of graduate education, and lack of thesis experience. So, normally the topics are relevant only for their career advancement. Also, because they have no real education in writing (other than acquiring mechanical skills to imitate the style of documents used in law firms), their syntax and prose are vitiated with numerous problems.

6)   The methodology used is exclusively intrinsic. You don’t collect data and analyze it. Your data are the sources, judicial precedents, laws, and other authors’ works. Your job deals mainly with analyzing the rules derived from these sources and trying to see if they can be either generalized or applied to new situations.


How can I organize my research paper?


Please click here for information about how to organize the research paper.


How can I cite sources in the formal legal writing style?


Please click here for information about citation formats.


How can I cite sources in a Social Science paper?


Please click here for information about citation formats.


What is plagiarism?


It is the deliberate or reckless representation of another’s words, thoughts, or ideas as your own without attribution in connection with submission of academic work. Please read the Student Code of Conduct (Academic) on plagiarism and other offences against academic honesty.


Do you have any tips on how to work with a supervisor?


You can visit this website, which contains some tips.


I do not know exactly what to write about. Do you have any suggestions?


You should decide the topic. If I choose it for you, the topic may not be of your interest. You will be researching, reading, and writing about this topic for a whole term. So, it should be about something you are truly passionate about or something you really want to learn. The best way to start thinking about a topic is to read about areas of Law and Justice that you already know that are interesting. This will give you some ideas. You can always run these ideas by me.


How can I find Canadian cases and legislation?


The most comprehensive database is CanLII, a non-profit organization managed by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. CanLII's goal is to make Canadian law accessible for free on the Internet. You can click here to access this database.


Another very good database, which is also free is Lexum. You can click here to access it.


How can I find US cases and legislation?


There are many databases. One of the most comprehensive databases is the Legal Information Institute maintained by Cornell Law School. You can click here and follow the links to the Institute to access it.