Legal research is a component of law practice and a critical skill every legal professional must possess.
Conducting legal research is essential in ensuring that your arguments are strong, your legal writing is sound, and your overall case strategy is solid.
In this article, you will get a step-by-step guide on how to do legal research, including tips and best practices to help you carry out effective and efficient legal research.
Whether you are a new law student, a seasoned attorney, or a legal professional in a different field, this guide will help you improve your legal research skills and assist you in your path of success.
What Is Legal Research?
Legal research is the process of finding and analyzing legal information, including primary sources such as statutes, regulations, and case law, as well as secondary sources such as legal treatises, law review articles, and other materials that help interpret and explain the law.
It aims to identify and understand the legal principles, rules, and precedents that apply to a particular legal issue or question.
Legal research is critical for anyone in the legal profession, including paralegals, lawyers, judges, law students, and legal scholars. It is an essential part of the practice of law, as it helps legal professionals make informed decisions, provide accurate advice to clients, and argue their cases effectively in court.
The correct process can be challenging, as the law is constantly evolving. It requires a deep understanding of legal concepts and terminology, as well as the ability to navigate and search legal databases and other sources of legal information.
However, with the right tools, techniques, and strategies, anyone can learn how to do legal research successfullly.
How to Do Legal Research?
Legal research involves finding and analyzing legal information and sources to support legal arguments, develop strategies, and make informed decisions.
It can be a complex and challenging task, but with the correct approach, anyone can master this skill.
Let’s start by looking at a step-by-step approach to conducting legal research, from understanding the research question to locating relevant sources, analyzing and synthesizing the information, and finally, presenting the findings clearly and concisely.
#1. Collect Critical Information
Gathering critical information about a legal issue is one of the essential steps in legal research. It involves identifying the key legal questions, relevant facts, and relevant law related to the issue.
This information can come from various sources, such as statutes, regulations, case law, legal treatises, and law review articles. It is crucial to gather as much relevant information as possible to ensure a thorough understanding of the legal issue and to be able to make informed decisions or arguments.
This step is vital in legal research because it lays the base for the rest of the process and can significantly impact the outcome of a case or legal matter.
#2. Identify the Legal Issue and Goal
Before beginning any in-depth legal research, it is important to establish a clear understanding of the legal issue you are trying to address and the goal you hope to achieve through your research. This step helps in the provision of a focus and direction for your research.
To establish your legal issue, you must identify the specific legal question or problem you must address.
For example: Let us take an instance; If you are working on a case involving a breach of contract, your legal issue would be contract law, and your goal might be to find case law that supports your argument that the other party breached the contract.
This might involve reviewing relevant documents, interviewing witnesses or parties involved, and analyzing the applicable laws and regulations. Once you have identified the legal issue, consider what you want to achieve through your research.
Your goal might be finding a solution to a specific legal problem, understanding the relevant laws and regulations, or supporting a legal argument or position.
By constructing your legal issue and goal upfront, you can create a roadmap for your research, stay focused on your objectives, and avoid wasting time on irrelevant information.
#3. Acquire Knowledge of Legal Precedents in Your Jurisdiction
Precedent refers to legal cases that have already been decided by a court and have established a legal principle or rule that lower courts must follow in the same jurisdiction. To conduct well-built legal research, it is significant to understand the existing precedents relevant to your legal probelm.
This involves researching relevant case laws, statutes, regulations, and other legal authorities to determine how courts have interpreted and applied the law in similar cases.
For example, suppose you are researching a legal issue related to employment discrimination in California. In that case, you would need to review relevant California state and federal court cases and statutory and regulatory provisions to understand how the courts have interpreted and applied the law in similar circumstances.
By understanding the precedent in your jurisdiction, you can ensure that your legal argument is grounded in existing legal authority and is more likely to be persuasive to a judge or other legal decision-makers.
#4. Type of Legal Sources Needed
When conducting legal research, it is essential to determine the kind of legal sources you need. The two main types of legal sources are primary sources and secondary sources.
Primary sources are key to legal research because they establish the current law on a legal issue. Examples of primary sources include federal and state constitutions, statutes or legislation, treaties, regulations, annotations, and case law.
On the other hand, secondary legal sources provide detailed explanations or interpretations of legal principles or summarize the current state of the law. Examples of secondary sources include law review articles and journals, practice guides, and legal treatises.
For example, let’s say you are a lawyer hired to represent a client who has suffered injuries in a car accident. You want to determine whether your client can sue the other driver for damages, and if so, what types of damages may be recoverable.
For this, you must determine the type of legal sources you need. You should start your research by consulting a personal injury practice guide, which provides an overview of the legal issues involved in car accident cases and likely contains a chapter on damages.
This would summarize the current law on damages in personal injury cases and reference relevant primary sources.
Primary sources would be key to understanding the current law on this issue. In this case, relevant primary sources would include state statutes and case law that govern car accidents and personal injury claims.
You would also need to research any relevant state or federal regulations that may apply.
To sort these sources and information, you can use eDiscovery Software‘s help. This will streamline your work and increase your speed and efficiency.
Start with Secondary Sources
When starting legal research, it is recommended to begin with secondary sources as they can provide important background information on the legal issue and save time by leveraging the expert work already done.
Experts who create and publish secondary sources have already gone through the legal research process themselves and have reviewed all the available primary sources to determine what is most applicable.
Use “Good” Law
It is essential to check that any cases and statutes found during legal research are still “good” by law, meaning they are still valid and relevant. Using an overruled or unconstitutional statute will not help win the case.
While more recent cases are preferred, an older case can still be considered a “good” law if it has not been overruled in court or otherwise made irrelevant. If an older case fits with the case’s fact pattern and applicable law, it can still be helpful in legal research.
#5. Make Use of a Citator
When conducting legal research, using a citator is essential in verifying that the cases and statutes you found are still good law. A citator is a tool that helps you determine whether a case or statute has been overruled, overturned, or otherwise invalidated.
You can use any popular and trustworthy citator tool, such as legalcitations.com, citethisforme.com, citationmachine.net, etc. When you input a case or statute citation into the citator tool, it will generate a report showing how it has been cited in subsequent cases and whether it is still good law.
This information can help you determine the relevance and weight of that case or statute in your research.
Using a citator is essential because the law constantly evolves, and even a recent case or statute may have been overruled or invalidated. By utilizing a citator, you can ensure that you are relying on up-to-date and relevant legal sources.
For example, let’s say you are researching a case that was decided five years ago. You find a similar case that was decided two years after the one you’re researching, and it seems to support your argument.
However, before relying on that case, you should use a citator to ensure it is still good law. If you find that the case has been overruled or discredited, you would need to look for another case that supports your argument.
#6. Report Your Results and Document Your Findings
Reporting your results and checking for gaps is an essential step in the legal research process. Once you have completed your research, you must report your results and document your findings. This means summarizing your research and identifying any gaps in your research that need to be filled.
Reporting your results involves creating a document that summarizes your research and findings. This document can inform your legal strategy, communicate with your clients or colleagues, or be a reference for future research.
Checking for gaps involves reviewing your research and identifying areas where you need further research.
Through this step, you can ensure that you have conducted comprehensive legal research. This can help you make informed decisions and effectively represent your clients.
For example, let’s say you were conducting legal research on a case involving a breach of contract claim. After reviewing primary and secondary sources, you found several relevant cases and statutes that support your client’s position.
However, you noticed that there are no cases or statutes directly on point to the specific facts of your case.
In this situation, you must report your results to your client or supervising attorney and note the gaps. This may prompt further research or analysis to determine how to address the gaps in the legal authority at its best and support your client’s case.
Where to Start Legal Research: Library vs. Online?
Regarding legal research, one of the biggest questions is where to start. Should you head to the library and dive into books and journals, or is it better to go online and use the plethora of legal research tools available online?
As with most things, the answer depends on the specific situation and the resources available to you.
The library has traditionally been the go-to place for legal research. Law libraries offer an extensive collection of primary and secondary sources and access to legal research databases and knowledgeable librarians who can assist with research questions.
In-person access to these resources can be precious for those new to legal research or who need to become more familiar with the intricacies of the law.
However, the internet has become a popular choice for legal research in the recent years. Online legal research tools offer primary and secondary sources, including case law, statutes, regulations, and legal journals.
Online research can also be more efficient than traditional library research, as it allows you to search for information quickly and easily without having to locate and access print resources physically.
Advantages of Online Research
- One of the most prominent advantages of online legal research is accessing information from anywhere with an internet connection. This can benefit those who need access to a legal research resource nearby.
- Additionally, online legal research tools often provide advanced search capabilities, allowing you to quickly refine your search and find the most relevant information.
Drawbacks of Online Research
- Despite the benefits of online legal research, there are also some potential drawbacks. The quality and accuracy of online legal sources can vary widely, and it can take time to determine the credibility and reliability of online resources.
- Additionally, online research may not be as comprehensive as traditional library research, as some sources may not be available online.
Ultimately, deciding whether to start legal research at the library or online will depend on various factors, including the nature of the legal issue, the resources available, and the researcher’s familiarity with legal research.
Sometimes, it may be best to start with online research and then turn to the library for additional resources or verified information.
It is also essential to remember that legal research is an ongoing process. Researchers should be prepared to use online and traditional research methods to ensure a thorough and accurate understanding of the law.
Ways to Improve Legal Research Skills
Legal research is a crucial part of any legal practice, and improving your research skills can significantly impact the quality of your work. You can use a few tips and strategies to improve your legal research skills considerably.
Tips for improving your legal research skills
- Take advantage of legal research training: Many law schools and bar associations offer legal research training sessions. These sessions can provide a solid foundation for legal research skills and may offer more advanced training for experienced researchers.
- Practice, practice, practice: Legal research skills require practice to develop. Take on research projects in your practice area or participate in legal research competitions to hone your skills.
- Stay updated on legal developments: Legal research is an ongoing process, and staying current on legal developments is essential. Subscribe to legal news publications, follow legal blogs and social media accounts, and attend legal conferences to stay informed.
- Develop effective search strategies: Effective search strategies can help you locate relevant information quickly and efficiently. This includes utilizing advanced search operators, truncation, and proximity searching.
- Develop critical thinking skills: Legal research involves analyzing issues and identifying relevant legal authorities. Developing the necessary thinking skills can help you identify gaps in your research and ensure that you have thoroughly considered all relevant sources.
- Seek feedback: Ask colleagues or mentors to review your research and provide feedback. This can help you find areas for improvement and develop more efficient research strategies.
Improving your legal research skills can help you work more efficiently, thoroughly, and accurately, ultimately leading to better client results.
Strategies for improving your legal research skills
Conduct more efficient research remotely
Gone are the days when legal research was tied to a physical location like a law library or office computer. Cloud-based legal research software now allows you to conduct research remotely from anywhere.
For example, with an app like Fastcase integrated with legal practice management software, you can remotely access resources like cases, statutes, and law review articles.
Another example is CourtTrax, which provides real-time online access to state and federal courts. With CourtTrax’s Clio integration, you can even link your search results to specific client details and have the results injected straight into Clio as a document.
Using cloud-based online research software like Tracers can also optimize searching for pertinent information remotely. You can even do a Tracers search from a Clio Matter for an even more enhanced process.
Double-check your memos along with your briefs with advanced legal research AI
Legal research artificial intelligence tools like ROSS Intelligence and Casetext’s CARA technology can help speed up your research process without sacrificing quality.
These tools allow you to highlight statements in your pleadings and briefs to instantly look for cases and statutes mentioning similar points of law.
They can also identify adverse case treatment in your pleadings and law briefs without manual searching.
Casetext’s citator functionality makes checking and flagging any bad law easier. With CARA, you can start your research with a legal brief from a matter in Clio to find relevant, tailored search results and resources.
The tool will find authorities on the same facts and legal issues and in the same jurisdiction.
Document your research with secure, cloud-based fact management software
A sound documentation system can prevent you from missing important facts or wasting valuable research. Secure, cloud-based fact-management software like Clio Manage and FactBox and reputed eDiscovery software can help you organize your research efficiently and accessibly.
Using these tools can help you connect all the facts and notes in your cases and prepare for depositions, hearings, client briefings, and trials faster and with more confidence that you aren’t missing facts.
By documenting your research and using litigation management software in an organized way, you can avoid duplicating your research efforts and make sure you have all the relevant information at your fingertips.
Legal research skills can significantly improve your efficiency and accuracy as a legal professional.
Consider using cloud-based legal research software, litigation management software, legal research AI, eDiscovery software, and secure, cloud-based fact-management software to maximize efficiency and accuracy.
Legal research is a vital skill for anyone in the legal profession, whether you are a law student, paralegal, or practicing attorney. Conducting a thorough legal research can make all the difference in a case, ensuring you have a solid understanding of the law and can effectively present your arguments.
By following the step-by-step guide outlined in this article, you can develop a solid legal research process which would help you look for the information you need efficiently and effectively. Remember to double-check your sources and stay organized throughout the research process.
With these tips and strategies, you can boost your legal research skills and stay updated with the ever-changing law.