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Research Tips and Strategies
As an attorney, your most valuable commodity will be your time. Therefore, you should always remember to carefully analyze and plan your legal research projects before you get started so you don't waste your time. Your clients (and your employers) will appreciate your efficiency.
Legal research is frequently a non-linear exercise so a step-by-step guide is not going to work in every situation. However, there are some things you should always consider when conducting legal research:
- As a clerk, intern or new associate it's often difficult to remember that your research assignment is part of a bigger project that has real implications to a real client. When you get the project, make sure you fully understand it, including what the research is to be used for. If you know your research will be used for a court filing, you'll want to frame your research and your answer differently than you would if it will be used to advise your client.
- If your research assignment involves a legal document (e.g. a contract, a will, a lease), be sure to start by reading it. The answer you want (or the answer you're trying to work around) may well be found there.
- Think about the facts and legal issues. Use a legal dictionary, the Words and Phrases volume in the print Digest, the Words and Phrases search field in Westlaw, or an online resource like Wikipedia or Wex to define unfamiliar terms.
- Use a secondary source to determine whether the controlling primary law will be state or federal law. When looking for primary law, don't presume that case law governs - your answer may be in a statute or administrative regulation.
- Don't assume that online research is always the best way to go. Also, remember that you have online options besides the major subscription research services, some of which are free.
- Whether in print or online, use indexes. Through their structure and their cross-references, indexes can help you find related keywords and search terms you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.
- When online, remember that there are many built-in research aids available to you, such as indexes, tables of contents, popular name tables, and segment/field searching. Take advantage of these.
- Keep records and notes as you go along, including all of the information you'll need for proper citations. Remember that your Westlaw History, Bloomberg Law Research Trail, and Lexis History are saved for you, so you don't have to re-invent the wheel every time you go online.
- If you come up empty, try a different secondary source. It's also possible that your case could be one of first impression (i.e. - there's no binding legal authority in your jurisdiction). If so, you may have to draw analogies to other settled areas of the law, or use a case from another jurisdiction as persuasive authority.
- Always update your research. In print, check pocket parts and/or supplements. Online, use BCite (Bloomberg Law), Shepard's (Lexis) or KeyCite (Westlaw).
- If different sources keep referring you to the same primary authority, that's usually a good indication that you've found everything you're going to find.