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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
    • 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

  • To understand the area of law
  • To find citations to primary authority
  • To discover new search terms and legal concepts
  • To focus and refine issues

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

Step 4: Search for 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
    • To determine if a decision is mandatory authority:
      • Are the legal issues governed by federal or state law (there may be both)?
      • Are you in federal or state court?
      • Are you in a trial court, an intermediate appellate court, or a court of last resort? (See Mandatory v. Persuasive Authority for more detail.)
  • Search for persuasive authority if there is no mandatory authority or to find contrary authority

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

  • Identify new search terms and legal concepts
  • Refine research strategy to incorporate findings
  • 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, clear 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