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Summer Associate Research Guide: Your First Research Project

This guide is intended for students who will be working at law firms over the summer. It is similar and related to the Experiential Learning Resources Guide which focuses more on externships and clerkships.


Legal research and writing projects will likely constitute a high percentage of your summer work. Research assignments form the most basic means of skills assessment. As one well-known litigator and legal author once expounded in regard to young associates, “[t]hey arrive from law school, factory-fresh, eager to work, and we immediately assign them research projects, because new lawyers (understandably) aren't qualified to do much else.” Performing these tasks is more than a rite of passage, it is an opportunity to distinguish yourself from your peers.

The best way to ensure success on your initial assignments is to have and execute a solid legal research plan and to record your steps along the way.  This page outlines how to formulate and execute such a plan from beginning to end. It's broken into the following sections:

  • what to do before you leave school,
  • what to do when you arrive at the office,
  • receiving your first assignment,
  • what to do when you arrive back at your office
  • following up with the assigning attorney, and
  • knowing when to quit.

Before You Leave School

  1. If you know what area of law you will be concentrating in, consult with one of the reference librarians to discuss the important resources in that practice area. Reference librarians are a great resource because they can provide a vendor-neutral review of the full spectrum of “go to” resources for a particular field.
  2. If you know in advance that the firm or agency you will be working for subscribes to a particular commercial service, be proactive and complete that vendor’s certification classes before you arrive for the summer. Information on certification is available at each of the vendors’ law student homepages. You may also wish to meet with that vendor’s law school representative before you arrive for your summer job or internship.

When You Arrive at the Law Office

a.    Find out what resources you have available to you:

i.    Major Commercial Services (Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg, others):

1.    If you do not know already, find out what, if any, commercial service(s) the office subscribes to.  Also, you should be aware that, currently, both Lexis and Bloomberg Law allow you to use your academic subscription for work.

2.    If the law office subscribes to one of the major commercial services, does it prefer you access resources through its subscription?  It may prefer you use its subscription, rather than your academic subscription, for a number of reasons: attorney-client privilege, billing purposes, research tracking etc.

3.    If the law office has a paid subscription to one or more commercial services, find out what is included and what is not included in that subscription. Unlike academic subscriptions, many law office subscriptions often include only a “slice” of the full range of products available. If you use resources “outside” the office’s subscription, it will be charged at higher retail rates.

4.    Does the law office have a librarian and/or vendor representative you can meet with before your first project so you can get an overview of the resources available and charges for use of those resources? Vendor representatives also may give you free “training time.”

ii.    Are there other specialized databases or resources the law office requires you to use that you have not been exposed to in law school? If so, ask to contact a vendor representative for training if the law office does not already training scheduled.

iii.    Are there print materials that your supervising attorneys will expect you to be able to use? If so, you may want to meet with one of the reference librarians at Loyola to review how to conduct research using those resources. Also, there are links here to using annotated statutes in print, using the West digest system in print, and using secondary sources, like treatises or legal encyclopedias, in print. For more information and helpful videos on using print resources, go to the  How do I . . . pages in this Guide.

b.    Be prepared to field questions at any time. Translation: always have a pad of paper and a pen, or a tablet, or whatever you take notes with at the ready. Busy attorneys do not always have time to plan a meeting.  ‘Meetings’ may occur in a break room, hallway, elevator, or wherever you may be when the attorney remembers the question. When an attorney has a question to be answered and spots a resource (you) to answer it, you need to be ready.

When You Receive Your First Assignment: Initial Meeting with Assigning Attorney

a.    Relax. If you are a little nervous or perhaps even a little intimidated when you first meet with a supervising attorney, then you suffer from a condition called “you’re perfectly normal.” One of the most important tips here is to relax and focus to make sure that you leave that meeting with all, or as much information, as you need to successfully complete the project that you are receiving.

b.    Inquire. Practicing attorneys are busy people. When they assign projects, they do not always have time to consider every bit of information you may need to answer a question or every source of information you should consider. It is your job as a researcher to ensure you have all the information that you will need to understand the scope of the project and to answer the question asked. Here are some basic questions to consider.

i.    Client matter information. Who is the client? What is the client and matter number? Even if you are not billing your research to a client, you may need a client and matter number for other purposes, like copying and phone calls.

ii.    Point person. If the partner or person in charge is someone other than the assigning attorney, get the name of that person.

iii.    Timeframe. What is the deadline? Try to get specifics. “In a few days” may mean something different to one person than another. Also, it might be a good idea to ask if the assigning attorney would like a progress report before the assignment is due.  A progress report will provide an opportunity to review your results and inquire about additional facts or whether there are other resources you may have missed.

iv.    Scope. Get a sense of the approximate amount of time the assigning attorney wants you to spend doing the research. There may be many reasons why an attorney may want an associate to limit the time spent on a project. If any of those reasons exist, you’ll want to know before you use an elephant gun to kill a mosquito.

v.    Cost limits. Can you use the firm’s paid subscription service to perform research on the project? Should you stick with print or freely-available sources? May you use one of the academic IDs that you are allowed to use for work? An important note here is that you should not be intimidated about using a firm’s paid subscription service to answer a question, if you have been told you can do so, but, it is best not to run up a $1200 bill answering a simple non-billable question.

vi.    Jurisdiction. If the answer to the question is jurisdiction-specific, you will want to know the relevant jurisdiction.  Is it a question of federal or state law or both, what court governs? Is the attorney looking for a comparison or a survey of different jurisdictions’ laws on a topic?

vii.    Format. Does the assigning attorney want your answer as a verbal explanation, an interoffice memorandum, e-mail, a copy of the controlling statute or primary source, a list of the most important cases, or copies of all the cases? Does the firm or agency have a specific format for the document you are creating? Does the assigning attorney have an individual preference? Does the assigning attorney have a sample?

viii.    Purpose. What will the research be used for? Drafting a court document? A sensitive client communication? Are there confidentiality issues? The answers may impact how you frame and conduct your research.

ix.    Facts. Don’t leave the meeting until you believe you have a firm understanding of the question that you are being asked to answer. That means understanding the facts—who, what, where, when, how, etc.  Ask if there are other sources of facts. For example, are there other documents—a client interview memo or discovery documents that might shed light on the issue? Has anyone already worked on this issue that you can consult with?

x.    Starting points. You may, depending on the situation, be able to ask the assigning attorney for suggested starting points. The attorney may be able to refer you to a particular treatise or point you to an attorney-expert within the firm. If you’re not comfortable asking the assigning attorney, you may wish to contact one of the reference librarians. We are here to help, not to judge.


When You Arrive Back at Your Office

a.    Read and review everything you have been given with great care.

i.    If it is possible, do so immediately, so the details of the meeting, and things you may have forgotten to record, are fresh in your mind. It is OK to ask follow-up questions, but do not pester an assigning attorney because you failed to take adequate notes.  Also, the attorney may be busy and unavailable, so it is best to understand the assignment before you leave the first meeting.

ii.    Here are some points to consider when you sit down to review the meeting.

1.    Remember that in a dispute involving a written document (e.g. a contract, lease, or will), the language of the document itself should be the starting point for your research.

2.    Again, remember to read everything carefully – a lot of legal language may seem “boring”, but you don’t want to skip over important language from legal documents or primary source material.

3.    Define unfamiliar terms – use a law dictionary to help you with jargon and “terms of art”. Do not skip over words that you do not understand. Every word in a well-drafted legal document, whether a case or an agreement, has meaning. If you do not understand what the documents say, you cannot understand how they apply.

b.    Engage in preliminary analysis. You cannot find a needle in a haystack until you find the right haystack. Translation: think before you start ‘googling’ for an immediate answer. Before you can answer a legal question, you have to determine what the precise legal issue is. This task requires an in-depth examination of the basic “who, what, where, when, why, and how questions.” So here are some questions to consider before you start researching. 

1.    Who are the parties? Think about legal relationships like employer/employee or landlord/tenant, not just names or labels.

2.    What is/are the things in controversy? A contract? A harm (slander, breach)? Property (condominium, formula)? The answer to this question may direct you to start your research in a particular area of law (condominium law, construction law etc.).  

3.    What law governs? If you have not been told this by the assigning attorney, it is time to start thinking about whether the legal issue involved is governed by state or federal law and what type of primary law would address the question.

4.    Can I state my issue in a sentence? Your review of facts should yield an initial list of search terms or phrases. If you can state your legal issue in a sentence centering on your key terms or phrases, you are well on your way to beginning your search. Conversely, if you do not know enough about your issue to state it in a coherent sentence you need to do some background research first. Background research requires the use of secondary sources. Perhaps your assigning attorney recommended some? If not, this is a good time to contact your friendly reference librarian.

c.     Once you have formulated an initial search, you will need to determine the resources you have at your disposal. You should, at this point, know what firm resources you have at your disposal and what other resources—academic IDs, free resources, librarians, you can tap into for assistance.

d.    Now that you know what to search for (possible key terms, legal topic, and jurisdiction) and where to search (possible sources), you can begin to draft a strategy and record your results. You will want to make a list of resources and a list (at least an initial one) of what order you intend to search them.

e.    Record your process. On your first assignment, it is imperative that you have a plan and keep track of every step you take. In fact, it is an excellent idea to establish that habit for all your research projects. Think of it as the legal research equivalent of briefing cases. Once you start doing it, it will become second nature.

i.    There are several important reasons why it is imperative to record your research process while you are working over the summer:

1.    It saves you from needlessly repeating steps (and thereby wasting time and possibly incurring unnecessary charges);

2.    The assigning attorney will expect you to keep track of your research in order to determine whether you have overlooked any key resources;

3.    Even if the assigning attorney does not expect you to record your research, keeping a record will establish you as  diligent and organized, and  able to create and execute a plan. These are all positive attributes of attorneys;

4.    In the event that you are not able to discover an answer to the assigning attorney's question you will want to detail the entire process of your research. “I can’t find anything and I don’t know why” is a much different answer than “I’ve looked in every source you suggested and every source the law librarian suggested and none of them seem to answer your question, here are my notes.”

5.    It is entirely possible someone else may pick up your assignment from where you left off.  That person should know where you have searched and what you have found.

ii.    What a research journal might look like:

Sample Research Log


Resource/ Terms

Findings/ Values

Next steps/ Citations Found





































Derived from Robert M. Linz, Research Analysis and Planning: The Undervalued Skill in Legal Research Instruction, Legal Reference Services Quarterly, 34:1, 60-99 (2015)

Following up with the Assigning Attorney

When you had your initial meeting, did you schedule a time for a progress report? You should report what you found, your assessment so far based on what you found, and what additional information you need, if any. You also should be ready to report on your research process, particularly if you do not find anything. Sometimes the answer to a question depends on facts which you do not have, rather than legal research.  The attorney may have the fact or tell you where to retrieve it.  If you believe additional legal research is necessary, you should indicate what research is necessary.

When Do I Quit?

a.    General Misconceptions. When should you stop researching?  This is often one of the hardest questions to answer for a few reasons. First, research is an iterative or circular process. As you follow your research strategy and accumulate knowledge, the questions you need to ask to hone in on an answer may change, so you may feel the need to re-visit sources that you have already consulted. That is not uncommon. Likewise, many students and young attorneys believe there ought to be some magic case or dispositive document that answers the question asked. Most answers require in depth analysis of multiple and often conflicting sources, and often require consideration of analogous situations.  

b.    Guidelines: Here are a few guidelines to follow to help you feel more confident that your research is completed (or nearly completed) without fearing that the answer you missed is lurking right around the next corner.

i.    Cost benefit analysis. One of the most obvious ways to know it is time to wrap up your research, for better or worse, is reaching a deadline or a project constraint, either you have invested as much time as the assigning attorney allotted for you, or you have spent as much money on the project as the assigning attorney considered. Often the latter occurs when research is being billed to a client. Regarding deadlines, keep in mind that you need to leave ample time to produce a written document if you have been instructed to do so. Too often students and young associates spend too much time researching and too little time drafting, resulting in sloppy work product that leads assigning attorneys to question the writer’s credibility.

ii.    All roads lead to Rome. As your research proceeds, you may find that different sources yield the same set of useful references.  For example, if you were researching a question under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you might find that the pertinent cases you locate in a treatise on employment discrimination, an annotated version of the statute, and via your terms and connectors search for employment cases are all the same.

iii.    What if you haven’t found anything? That will happen. One thing to keep in mind is that it will be much easier to explain that you have not found anything if you have kept a research log detailing what searches you ran and what sources you consulted. If you have run appropriate searches and you have looked in all the right places, your assigning attorney will be more inclined to agree with you that there is no good answer. It is more likely the attorney will re-focus your search or suggest alternative sources or strategies. Research is, after all, an iterative process.

iv.    Updating.  You are not finished researching until you have updated all your primary sources to make sure that they are still good law and to make sure that they don’t lead you to newer cases.

Subject Guide

Subject Guide