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Basic Legal Research Tips

General tips for starting your research and determining when it's okay to stop researching

1) Understand the Assignment

  • Understand the Assignment:

  • Get clear in your own mind what you need to find or you might go right past it when it is presented to you.
  • Make sure you know:
    •  When the project is due
    •  What format your work-product should take
      • formal memo
      • list of citations
      • photocopies of cases
      • information notes
      • oral report
      • draft motion or client lette
    • How much time you should spend on it
    • Whether or not you are authorized to use pay-as-you-do resources, and if you are, how incurred costs should be charged (is there a client number)
    • The requester’s preferred method of you asking for clarification and guidance
      • E-mail
      • Phone
      • Face-to-face
      • Regular check-in
      • Just call when a question arises
      • Work through someone else
  • Have both an ultimate goal (the true purpose of your research) and an immediate goal (the thing you are trying to find out now) at all times.

2) Understand the Problem

  • Understand the facts – the holding of a case is the application of law to the facts of that case. You need to understand the actual events that brought your client to an attorney. This sometimes involves non-legal research.
  • Understand legal terms – some words have special meanings in the law. You need to know if something special is being conveyed by the use of particular language. Legal dictionaries or Words and Phrases (digest of case-defined words) will provide definitions and citations to cases defining terms in question.
  • Understand general legal principles – in order to adequately identify the legal principles involved you need to have some idea of what general areas of law are involved.
  • Take a look at:
    • The jurisdiction (or jurisdictions) that is relevant to this problem
    • What you already know about this topic – the less you know about a topic the more you need to begin with secondary sources.
  • Role of secondary sources in legal research
    • Secondary sources are easier to read and understand than the primary sources.
    • They are better organized than most primary sources.
    • They contain cites to primary materials – and the best ones at that.