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Summer Associate Research Guide: Researching an Unfamiliar Area of Law

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.


One of the most difficult tasks a summer associate or intern faces is to venture into a new area of law. As unsettling as this experience can be, there is good news: you are not alone.  There are very few areas of law no one has explored, and legal publishers and librarians have marked many a fine trail through the forests of law. What follows is a brief overview of some of the ways you can get started on a project that requires you to research a legal topic that you know nothing about. This page includes:

  • Caveats on getting started,
  • good tips for starting points,
  • a refresher on using secondary sources, and
  • when to ask an expert.

Two Caveats for Starting Out

a.    The 80/20 rule. When you are researching an unfamiliar area of law, it is important to keep in mind there are really two kinds of searches in legal research: a learning search and a honing-in search. This is the 80/20 rule applied to legal research. When you are researching an unfamiliar area, you will probably spend 80% of your time learning about your legal topic or searching for sources of information and only 20% of your time searching or applying those sources to arrive at an answer.

b.   Finding a needle in a haystack. Law librarians and expert legal researchers believe that one of the worst places to start your research is to immediately search for a case online. You can’t find a needle in a haystack until you find the right haystack and this often means doing enough background research or “learning” research (see 80/20 rule) to get the proper context for your search. Most students start their research searching for cases without any background information.  They  are comfortable with an style search and filter technique. Also, many law students and recent graduates have a myopic view of the importance of case law because law school focuses almost exclusively on cases as the primary source of authority.  Searching for a case in a commercial service (Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg) as a starting point when working in an unfamiliar area is a particularly bad idea. Try to avoid wasting a client’s or firm’s money.

Good Tips for Starting Out

a.    Ask the assigning attorney for a source or starting point. The person assigning the project may know a great deal about the subject. But, you cannot be expected to have been exposed to every area of law as a student, so you should not be embarrassed to reveal that you have not taken a class on securities law or administrative law or whatever the assigned topic may be. You might want to say something like: “I’m excited to work this project, but I haven’t studied this topic yet in school, do you have a resource that you recommend as a starting point or is there someone who has been working on this project that I might consult ?” A reasonable attorney should give you a starting point.  If not, call the reference desk.

b.    Use free and low-cost resources to get started. Here are some tips and pointers for using free resources effectively to begin research in an unfamiliar area.

i.    It is OK to use free resources as a starting point for a legal research project. That is especially true when you are researching an unfamiliar area. A basic search using an Internet search engine can reveal copies of articles or blog posts that might offer a clue as to what primary source(s) governs your question or what secondary sources may offer better insight.

ii.    Take advantage of advanced features of your favorite Internet search engine. For example, Google offers an advanced search template ( Advanced search screens allow users to incorporate some Boolean search commands (AND, OR NOT) and phrase searching. In addition they allow users to filter results based on a website’s domain (.edu for example) and by document type. These advanced search features and filters enable a user to quickly limit results to increase a search's relevance.

iii.    Try Google Scholar for free articles and cases. Google Scholar allows users to search for legal cases and for legal articles both from the Internet and from HeinOnline and other databases that the Law Library subscribes to. You can also use an advanced search to look for background information on a federal act, for example you might look for the name of the act as an exact phrase and then also search for any of the terms background, summary, or overview).

iv.    Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII) ( is a great source for free legal research, especially if you are looking for federal codes or rules. One area of LII that is especially helpful for beginning legal research projects is Wex ( Wex is a “community-built, freely available legal dictionary and legal encyclopedia.” It is essentially a Wikipedia of law. It contains definitions or explanations for more than 5,000 legal terms and topics.

c.     Find a good research guide on the topic.  Do not reinvent the wheel.  Most likely, someone has already researched this topic. A good way to find this out is to look in a research guide on the subject.

i.    There are many professionally-published research guides. You can look for these by running a search in the Library catalog or in an index of legal periodicals like LegalTrac, which you can access through the Law Library’s homepage. Another way you can locate these is to search the Internet for research guides law librarians have created and posted on law library Websites. 

ii.    You can use the same technique as above to locate state legal research guides available through academic and court law library sites. Also, there is a series of state legal research guides published by Carolina Academic Press that you can find in most law libraries.

Using Secondary Sources

One of most familiar mantras among law librarians is this: begin your research in secondary sources. This is especially true when researching in unfamiliar areas. Secondary sources can be especially helpful when you are starting out because they can quickly reveal major concepts, terms, and procedures and may offer citations to primary sources or other secondary sources that might be good starting points. But, remember that not all secondary sources are created equal—some provide much greater depth of treatment than others. An assigning attorney may point you to a treatise—an exhaustive treatment—on a topic to answer a question.  But if you know nothing, you might do better to get an overview before you dive in. Some of the best sources to do this are ones that you may have forgotten about or might not consider.  Here are few great places to start.

a.    Study aids and encyclopedias.

i.    Study Aids: believe it or not, academic study aids are a perfectly suitable secondary source for beginning research, nutshells and their big brother hornbooks are especially good. As a Loyola Law Student, you have free access to the Law Library’s subscription to West’s Study Aids Subscription.

ii.    Legal Ecyclopedias: students often overlook encyclopedias. But, national encyclopedias, like American Jurisprudence 2d (Am. Jur.2d) and Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.), and Illinois-specific legal encyclopedias, like Illinois Law and Practice (ILP) and Illinois Jurisprudence (Il. Jur.), are excellent starting points for legal research.

b.    Practice materials and treatises. For any given legal practice area or topic, there is a wide array of analytical and explanatory material practitioners use to gather and explain the law and offer guidance on how to draft corresponding legal documents, like pleadings and contracts. There are two basic ways to locate these.

i.    Use the Library catalog ( to search for analytical materials (treatises, hornbooks, continuing legal education materials). This video explains some of the features of the Library catalog. If, for example, you were looking to see what was available on the subject of Illinois evidence law, you could type ‘Illinois evidence’ into the search box and review the results. On the first screen of results, you would see a number of important titles, some in print, some available through Lexis Advance and Westlaw.  

ii.    If you have access to one or more of the online commercial services, you can look there as well. Lexis Advance and Westlaw both organize their analytical material by topic and by jurisdiction so if you were looking for materials on Illinois evidence law, you could select Illinois as the jurisdiction and then look for titles on evidence law.

Ask an Expert

As mentioned in the “Your First Research Assignment” section of this guide, don’t be afraid to ask an assigning attorney for starting points. Even if the assigning attorney is not an expert in the area, the attorney may be able to point you to people who are. Also, you might consult with one of the reference librarians or one of your professors, or even a friend or relative who may be familiar with an area of law that is new to you. If you need some guidance, reach out!

For More on This Subject

See, Peggy Roebuck Jarrett & Mary Whisner, “Here There Be Dragons”: How to Do Research in an Area You Know Nothing About, 6 Perspectives: Teaching Legal Res. & Writing 74 (1998). A valid Westlaw ID and password are required to access the article.

Subject Guide

Subject Guide