How to Win a Legal Writing Competition in 3 Surprisingly Easy Steps

I have been an organizer and grader for a number of writing competitions over the years. Collectively, I’ve reviewed dozens of writing competition submissions, some good, most not so good. This post provides you with a three-step protocol for legal writing competition success. You might be surprised that it is easier to win than you think.

Step 1: Research competitions

Your first step is to learn about the competitions. It can be hard to get credible information about writing competitions because they change their rules or shut down entirely without much notice. My mom, her researcher and I have worked together to compile the legal writing competitions into a book, “How to Pay for Your Law Degree.” Most law schools have a copy on campus which you can review for free (usually in the law library, but sometimes in the financial aid or career placement offices). Or, if you want, you can order your own copy for about $30 at Amazon.

You should scan the book to get a sense of what writing competitions exist, the paper topics that might fulfill some competitions, typical deadlines and eligibility requirements.

Step 2: Write a Paper

Armed with some knowledge of writing competition requirements, your next step is to write a paper that can compete.

To help you write your paper, if you don’t already own it, you should get Prof. Eugene Volokh’s book Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting on Law Review. This book helps you navigate every step in the paper-writing process.

The book will answer most of your questions, but let me add a little advice about writing a paper that can win writing competitions. From my perspective, the key to winning is picking a good topic. This may be obvious, but students often focus more effort on conforming to the Bluebook and the style manuals; those are helpful, but they will not determine your success in a writing competition. Instead, pick a good topic and execute it competently, and you position yourself well for victory. In contrast, pick a poor topic, and even if you execute it brilliantly with the finest footnotes and no style errors, you still aren’t competitive.

Regarding topics, I recommend that you start thinking about topics early. By doing so, you can start collecting material and thinking about the topic in your spare mental cycles rather than rushing around at the last minute. Stated differently, it’s easier to write a good paper on deadline with a warm start than a cold one. Also, it is hard to write a good paper in a single semester. You might consider ways to work on your paper before and after a semester to make sure you have adequate time to refine your thoughts, develop your arguments and polish your paper.

As Volokh discusses in his book, students routinely make some errors selecting topics that reduce or eliminate their chances of winning a writing competition. Some examples:

* case notes. Personally, I think blogs have mooted student-written case notes. It is very, very rare that a student case note can add something to the collective understanding of a case that the blogosphere didn’t already say in the first week following the case. But even if you disagree with me about that, case notes have almost no shot of winning a writing competition because they are too topically narrow and unambitious compared to other papers.

* topics driven by current events. Virtually every time I grade a writing competition, I see papers on a topic that briefly got a lot of press coverage about 12-18 months beforehand, but that no one is still discussing any more. These papers also have almost no chance of winning.

* topics on pending legislation or cases on appeal. Occasionally these papers are perfectly timed, but usually something happens between the time the student selects the topic and the writing competition evaluation—such as the legislation dies or gets radically revamped, or the case settles or the new opinion hasn’t issued yet but is imminent. Those intervening developments usually undercut the paper’s most interesting facets.

* me-too topics. Students tend to gravitate towards overgrazed topics where it is hard to find something unique to say. There are certain topics that students just can’t resist (in my field, they include online music/file-sharing and keyword advertising). As a grader, when I see the eighth entry on online file-sharing, an overwhelming sense of ennui sets in—either the paper better knock my socks off, or I’ve seen and heard it all and the paper looks derivative. In effect, student papers play a game of Scattergories against each other (a process I describe in more detail here). In particular, when two or more writing competition submissions are on the same general topic (don’t laugh—it happens frequently), almost invariably they both knock each other out because neither paper seems original. At best, the grader will compare the two papers against each other, and the lesser paper is doomed. So to avoid the pitfalls of grader ennui and scattergories, avoid the me-too topics.

* topics that are too hard. Occasionally students go the other direction and pick a topic that is too hard for students to successfully execute. I remember grading one paper that simultaneously undertook three really hard tasks: (1) a constitutional analysis, (2) analysis of an international treaty, and (3) a multi-country comparative analysis. Whew! I think most law professors with their resources and experience could not successfully execute this topic even if they worked on it for years, and a student writing his/her first academic paper had no chance of succeeding.

Whatever topic you select, make sure you love it. In effect, you marry your topic because you will typically spend several hundred hours working on it over the course of months or even years. Ideally, your topic will have something to do with your desired future practice. Your research can lay a foundation for your substantive knowledge in that area and signal your interests to future employers.

A final note about writing the paper: your paper competes based on its original analysis, not its recap of the prior literature. When I’m grading a paper, I skip over the paper’s recap of the law (unless I don’t know the area well) and look for the paper’s unique insights into the issue. If that’s only one paragraph in the conclusion, the paper has zero chance of winning.

Step 3: Apply!

Winning a writing competition is a big deal. Usually you win cash, which is always nice. Sometimes you also get guaranteed publication for your article. With some competitions, you get a free trip to an awards presentation ceremony. For example, the Entertainment Law Initiative Writing Competition flies out the winner and the honorable mentions to attend the GRAMMY awards ceremony and related parties.

A writing competition victory also has incalculable benefits for your resume. It represents external validation of your writing skills. As you know, employers value writing skills highly, so a win could significantly improve your job prospects.

So there are ample reasons to compete. Yet, amazingly, fewer students do so than you might think. I have been involved with several writing competitions where we have received a shockingly low number of submissions. It is not atypical for lesser-known or niche competitions to have less than 2 submissions for every prize available.

In some cases, the odds are even more favorable. For example, for the past 3 years I have run ASCAP’s Nathan Burkan copyright-themed writing competition at SCU. ASCAP gives us the right to designate a winner ($600) and runner up ($250) at SCU; the winner then competes nationally for more money. Each of the past 3 years, we have gotten only one submission for the local SCU competition. In other words, we have had $250 and an honorific just waiting for someone to apply and we couldn’t give it away. As the marketing slogan goes, “you can’t win if you don’t play.”

Now, some writing competitions do have a lot of submissions, making the odds of success much lower. But if you do your research, you can find competitions that other students may have overlooked; and if you write a competent paper on a good topic, your paper will stand out and compete well even in popular contests.

Good luck!

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