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Legal Research Basics

Introduction

Whenever you conduct legal research, it is essential that you follow a process. Many researchers simply throw words into Westlaw or Lexis and try their best to sift through the thousands of results, without first coming up with a research plan. They end up lost, confused, and frustrated. Taking the time to develop a research plan (and having the discipline to follow it) will make your research more efficient and less infuriating. The major steps of the research process are detailed below.

Step 1: Preliminary Analysis

One might call this the "stop and think" step. The goal here is to determine the precise issues you need to research and to develop a plan for how to go about researching them. You'll want to think about the following:

Relevant Facts

Identify the most important facts, and discard any irrelevant facts. Focus on the questions: Who? What? Where? When?

Jurisdiction

Whose law will apply? Is it a federal, state, or local issue? Remember that many legal issues are not exclusively one or the other.

Areas of Law and Potential Legal Issues

Identify the area of law you are dealing with (e.g., torts, copyright, employment, etc.). This will help you determine where to begin your research. If you already have some knowledge of the area of law, begin to think about what potential legal issues exist (e.g., negligence, fair use, gender discrimination, etc.). If not, that's fine.

Types of Law

What types of law do you expect to find? Statutes, cases, regulations, local ordinances? Not every legal issue will be resolved by case law.

Develop Search Terms

Take your relevant facts and the potential legal issues you identified, and use them to create a list of search terms.

Create a Research Plan

Decide where to begin your research. Decide how to use your chosen resource (index, table of contents, full-text searching, etc.). Prepare a back-up plan in case your resource proves unhelpful. If there are multiple legal issues in your research problem, develop a separate plan for each issue (trying to research multiple issues simultaneously is a surefire way to confuse yourself).

Step 2: Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are resources that discuss or analyze the law, such as treatises, practice guides, and law review articles. Primary sources, on the other hand, are the actual law - statutes, cases, regulations, etc. The ultimate goal in legal research is to determine what primary law governs your legal issue. Searching for primary law directly is frustrating and confusing, so it is always wise to start with secondary sources. A good secondary source will give you an overview of your legal issue and point you to the relevant primary law. Be sure to make note of the relevant primary laws cited in the secondary source.

If you don't know what secondary source to use, consult our list of Recommended Treatises.

It is usually a good idea to consult two or three different secondary sources, as some may be more thorough or more recently updated than others.

Step 3: Primary Sources

Hopefully your secondary source provided citations to relevant primary laws. Now, use those citations to access those primary laws - and read them. Seriously. Make sure the secondary source got it right.

Use research tools like Notes of Decision and Citing References to expand your research. If you are looking at a statute, Notes of Decision will show you what cases have discussed that statute. If you are looking at a case, Citing References will show you what secondary sources have discussed that case. Use these and other research tools to find additional secondary and primary sources.

Step 4: Update

Use tools like Shepard's and KeyCite to verify that the primary law you are looking at is still good law.

Step 5: Analysis

Take everything you have learned and ask yourself if you are confident that you have a complete and accurate answer to your research question. Sometimes the research process will show you that your initial question needs to be expanded. Sometimes you will learn new terms of art or legal theories along the way. You may need to run through the research process again, using this new information as your guide.

How will you know when you are done? You can feel confident that you are finished when you have consulted multiple secondary sources, and they are all pointing you to the same primary law.