This page will provide you with an outline of legal research planning and process.
At the end of this lesson you should be able to:
If there is no right way then how does one make a legal research plan? Well, start with a self-assessment. You probably have a sense of what comes more naturally to you, as well as where your strengths and weakness lie. Remember the best method is the one that helps you to stay on task, tracks where you have been, and guides you to the information you need. A basic research plan will break down your questions into specific research tasks, identify sources to use in your research, and begin to identify search terms.
Below are some examples of ways to approach legal research planning. Read through them and see if you can identify a format that might work best for you. Not sure? Try out different approaches. Still not sure? Make your own!
You may have heard or read the phrase "legal research process" before. This phrase refers to the steps undertaken by a legal researcher in order to meet their research objective. While a singular phrase, legal research process, is often used to talk about research activities, there is no one process that is uniformly best every time for every problem. There are, however, certain steps every researcher should employ along the way. The order of these steps--or even the inclusion of a step--may vary depending on a variety of factors including how much you know before you start and the scope of the project.
Below you will find the typical steps a legal researcher moves through as part of the research process. Remember, legal research is not linear. This means that, while these steps provide a solid path for approaching any legal research problem, the actual steps taken--or value of a given step--will vary.
For example, if you are an experienced personal injury attorney researching in an area of law you know well you may spend less time on the beginning steps than a novice researcher.
Plan and Organize Your Research
The first step for any researcher should be to plan out your path. This step, though often the most overlooked, is one of the most valuable. Spending just a little time on planning can be the key to efficient and effective research results.
Your research problem will often start as a cumbersome memo from a senior attorney or result from a mass of notes scribbled during a client interview. It is important to begin by reviewing what information you have and separating out the parts. Who are the players? What is the jurisdiction? Which details are superfluous? Which details are operative facts? And, most importantly, what is the issue (or issues) you need to research?
At this stage it is also important to make sure you understand the scope of what you are being asked to do, the desired work product (deliverable), and any relevant time or money limitations.
Once the research problem has been broken into parts and the key issues have been identified, a broader picture will emerge. At this stage a legal researcher must identify his or her own knowledge gaps. Take note of broad themes, key terms, and basic background areas you will need to explore.
It is not enough to simply think about what you will do--you need to keep a written plan. Keeping a written plan will help you use your time efficiently. A research plan will identify where you need to go and what you need to gather, as well as keep track of where you have been. It is easy to forget a step when you do not have a guide to reference along the way. Look to the left-hand column of this page for more information about making a research plan.
As you move through the preliminary stage of your plan be sure to keep notes, and continue to take notes along the way. Some researchers like to keep a formal log. Others like to jot down comments on the sources they find. Using digital organization opportunities, such as the foldering systems on Lexis+ or Westlaw Edge or digital workspace platforms like Evernote, can be another way to keep track of and annotate your project. There is no right way to keep track of your research. It is important though that whatever method you use your notes are organized, detailed, and complete. It is likely you will need to refer back to them many times.
Use Commentary to Define and Understand Issues
When attacking a research problem, begin with building on what you already know about the problem and its area of law. Identify the gaps in your knowledge base and try to bridge them with background reading. Secondary sources can be a helpful review or a great starting place if you are unfamiliar with the subject.
Secondary sources will help you flesh out the steps above and fill in any holes. Background reading should help you confirm the appropriate jurisdiction for your legal issue, whether federal or state law applies, and identify the types of authority involved (i.e. whether the issues are governed by case law, statutory law, administrative law or a combination).
Secondary sources will also help you identify any “terms of art” specific to this area of law. These terms will help you refine your search queries. Additionally, secondary sources will often cite directly to governing statutes and regulations and cite to key case law. This makes them an ideal starting point for searching for primary law.
Find Relevant Primary Sources in the Applicable Jurisdiction (cases, statutes, regulations)
Secondary sources are the best with which to start legal research, but to answer your legal question you will need to find relevant primary sources. Some ways to locate primary sources are:
Remember, there are a whole host of tools which can assist you in your research. If you discovered a citation during your background reading, you can use these tools to turn that citation into a jumping off point. Likewise, if your prior reading revealed a term of art important to your topic, try using an index or the topic and key number system to get started.
After working with the finding tools, you may still need to conduct some traditional searching in one of the legal databases. Keep in mind the value of controlling your search results with Boolean searching and search filters.
Restate and Refine
As your legal research progresses, you will likely come across new terms, or even new issues. It is important to take time throughout the research process to assess what you have done so far. Did you miss anything after you became familiar with the area of law? Does your issue statement need to be refined? Do you have new sub-issues which you must address?
Consider the Law of Other Jurisdictions (Persuasive Primary Sources)
If after your reassessment you are not finding enough primary authority to answer your question, it may be time to consider law outside your jurisdiction. If you have not been tracking this all along, go back and rerun some of your searches with a broader scope in mind.
Update and Verify
It is always important to make sure the law you are using is "good law," meaning that it has not been overruled (such as with a case) or superseded (such as with a statute or regulation). It is considered professional incompetence to fail to accurately verify the status of a precedent.
You may have been checking this as you uncovered sources. If your research is being done in small time window (for example, a day), this is likely sufficient. If you are working on a project over several days or weeks, it is imperative that you take a moment when finished to ensure nothing has changed since you started the project.
Remember, law is a living entity and constantly changing.
Know When to Stop Researching
Knowing when to stop is one of the toughest legal research skills to master. Unit 10: Putting it all Together will discuss this in greater detail.