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Legal Research Basics


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

  • Identify / Clarify:
    • Relevant and material facts (Who? What? Where? When?)
    • Parties (who is the Plaintiff and who is the Defendant?)
    • Jurisdiction(s) – Is the issue resolved under federal, state (which state?), or both?
    • Area(s) of law
    • Primary legal issues: what are you trying to resolve?
    • Legal concepts, terms of art, possible legal theories, and defenses
  • What entities have authority?
  • What types of law do you expect to find (e.g., statutes, regulations, case law)?
  • How familiar are you with the area of law? What do you know about the issues?
  • Create a list of general and specific search terms (unique or distinctive facts) and legal concepts (include synonyms and related terms).

Step 2: Create a Research Plan

  • Decide where to begin (usually secondary sources).
  • Identify primary authority sources to search (federal, state, or both; statutes, regulations, and cases).
  • Locate the sources you wish to search, choose the format, understand the scope and coverage of the resource and how to navigate / search (table of contents, index, full-text search conventions).

Step 3: Consult Secondary Sources

  • Identify one or more secondary sources relevant to your issue.
  • Find the relevant sections with the index, table of contents, or search features.
  • Read all the relevant sections. Take notes as you go.
  • Note citations to primary law. Repeat this until you have a good understanding of the issue.

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

Step 4: Search for Primary Authority – Statutes, Regulations, and Cases

  • Search for statutes first (enacted laws control before case law).
  • Search for administrative regulations related to relevant statutes.
  • Search for case law interpreting the statute(s).
  • If there are no applicable statutes or regulations, look for mandatory case law (See Mandatory v. Persuasive Authority for more detail).
  • Search for persuasive authority if there is no mandatory authority, or to find contrary authority (it can be good to know what authority the other side is going to use to make their case).

Step 5: Evaluate Your Search Strategy and Results As You Go

  • Identify new search terms and legal concepts.
  • Refine research strategy to incorporate findings.
  • Try utilizing a research log to track what terms you've already used, in what combination, and where you searched them.
  • Too many and/or irrelevant results? – Narrow search:
    • Add more terms, use more specific terms, set filters, adjust proximity connectors (e.g., AND instead of OR, /s instead of /p).
  • Not enough results? – Broaden search:
    • Use fewer terms, use broader terms, remove filters, adjust proximity connectors (e.g., OR instead of AND, /p instead of /s).
  • Periodically consult your notes/facts to ensure you are staying on track.
  • Consider other relevant sources (e.g., surrounding sections of statutes, definitions, related authority).

Step 6: Update & Final Check

  • Make sure you have addressed all issues completely.
  • Update all primary authority you are relying on or citing to make sure it is still good law (using KeyCite and/or Shepard’s).
  • Proofread your work.