Research Primer

(you can use the PDF version of the Law Student Guide to Free Legal Research if you would like to print this guide)

Legal research is not exciting or glamorous, but it makes up the backbone of a legal practice.  As an added bonus, if you don’t do it right, you’re opening yourself up to malpractice claims.  Good times.

Legal Research Process Flow Chart

Click to Enlarge

Legal Research in Ten Easy Steps

(1) NARROW YOUR TOPIC. Begin by thinking to yourself, “What question am I trying to answer?”  Legal problems are tricky and full of complex situations. It’s easy to be distracted by facts or parts that are not relevant.

(2) BRAINSTORM. Start brainstorming a list of relevant keywords and concepts.  You should think of similar terms (such as murder -> manslaughter -> homicide) as well as expand and narrow (such as car -> automobile or truck -> dump truck).  The more you generate, the better your chances for creating a search that will find you the appropriate law.  You may have to repeat this step several times if you don’t get sufficient answers from your initial searches.

(3) TYPE OF LAW? Think about what type of law will answer your question.  For example, is this an area like the environment or medicine that an agency would control?  If so, you’d look in regulations.   There’s no hard and fast guide to this and many legal questions will be covered by a variety of laws.  Also, it’s something that you get better at with practice.  When in doubt, start your research with a secondary source like a law review article or encyclopedia.  These will point you towards the type of law that you should be searching and explain the issues in detail. They may even give you the major laws or cases that cover the issue.

(4) JURISDICTION Narrowing down the jurisdiction that you should search in makes practical sense because it cuts down the amount of material that you have to sort through, but also is legally proper because of stare decisis.  This should be relatively easy.

(5) SEARCH Using the terms you came up with in Step 2, search primary law.  Depending on which provider you use, you may be able to narrow your search using Boolean operators such as “and” “not” and “or”.   When looking at regulations or codes, you may find it easier to look at the table of contents and browse to a specific title or section before searching.

(6) STOP SEARCHING If you keep coming across the same law or answer to your question, you can be fairly sure that you’ve gotten the relevant laws.

(7) UPDATE Unfortunately, there aren’t many free citators available, especially for case law, so you may have to rely upon a commercial service such as Shepards or KeyCite.  Statutory and regulations can be updated via slip laws (statutes) and lists of sections affected (regulations).

(8) FORMAT Determine who your audience is. Are you writing an appellate brief? A memo for a partner? An academic paper?  There are several free sources of forms that may help you construct the document.

(9) CITE CORRECTLY No matter what you’re writing, the purpose is so that someone else – judge, partner, professor – can find the law that you’ve diligently researched and compiled.  So you need to put it in the correct citation format. Be aware that most courts use local rules for citations.