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So, How Do I Make a Plan?
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!
A legal research checklist is a list of steps and sources to be considered. The checklist format serves as a reminder of the considerations you should move through as you research. The checklist format also allows a researcher to easily assess what he or she has done so far--which is helpful so you do not waste time accidentally repeating your research. A checklist will, however, likely require a corollary log or some other method of note keeping.
Checklist - Exam Compatible
Reformatted to work with ExamSoft
Legal Research Guided Template
Some researchers prefer a more guided tool, especially as they are first learning. A guided template is helpful during the planning phase, but can be utilized throughout the research process. Users of a guided template should be careful, however, to maintain flexibility beyond the document. While a guided template is very useful, every research problem is different and researchers must be prepared to deviate as needed.
Legal Research Log
A legal research log is simply a record of where you have looked and what you have searched. Some researchers like to incorporate the legal research plan into their search log. After breaking the research problem apart, use the log to identify your first steps. Keep track of the results and reassess and reevaluate your path along the way.
Log Template - Exam Compatible
Reformatted to work with ExamSoft
Too Many Cases? Too Few?
Sometimes while following your research plan you find you are retrieving too many results--or too few. It is important to remember the plan itself should be part of the evolving process of legal research. You may need to revisit--possibly more than once--your plan in order to get the best results. Below are a few tips to help you address how to gather a manageable and comprehensive number of resources.
- Go back to your issues statement and see if can be refined. You may actually be dealing with more than one issue or an issue which has more than one part. Remember, sometimes a single research problem will require you to research and answer multiple legal issues.
- Go to a digest topic outline. You may be very close to the topic you need, but not realize there is a more targeted or nuanced aspect. A topic outline can help you browse the potential avenues you may need to consider. You may not know exactly what you are looking for, but you probably have enough knowledge at this point to recognize it when you see it!
- Eliminate or add search terms to broaden retrieval results. Go back to the tab for Unit 9: Searching for more tips about how to refine your queries.
Confused? Stuck? No Answer?
What if you have looked at secondary resources, made a plan, and found plenty of resources, but find yourself very confused about your research? (Perhaps even more so than when you started!) You may feel like you have done everything you were supposed to do and are not any closer to being ready to deliver a result.
WHAT IF I AM CONFUSED OR STUCK DURING MY RESEARCH?
If you get confused or stuck along the way there are several steps that can help you get on--or back on--track.
- Go back to your statement of the issue: Does it need to be framed differently? Are you sure you are asking the right question? Perhaps it needs to be broken down into smaller components.
- Go back to secondary sources: Try looking at different types of resources (e.g. if you consulted law reviews before, try an ALR annotation). Look at secondary sources that are more narrow in scope now that you have better identified the subparts of your problem.
- Go back to your search terms: try to rerun search terms with more broad or narrow queries.
- Go to a law librarian: It never hurts to ask an expert for assistance.
- Go back to the person who gave you the assignment and ask for clarification: Be prepared to explain what you have done already and have specific questions in mind when seeking clarification.
WHAT IF I SIMPLY CAN'T FIND AN ANSWER?
It happens. There are still areas of law with no on-point authorities to follow. Just like when you are stuck or confused, there are a few steps you can follow next.
- Be sure you have covered all the bases and tried all the different research angles. This is where having a plan to refer back to really helps!
- Check with a law librarian--again expert advice is always helpful.
- Go back to the person who gave you the assignment and explain what you have done and what you have and have not found. See how he or she wants you to proceed.
Researching: When to Stop!
Knowing when to stop researching can be the very hardest part of any research assignment! It is important to check-in throughout your research and access whether it is time to conclude.
Remember, sometimes in law the answer is that there is no answer! There are areas of law which will have no relevant authority. Below are questions you can ask yourself to determine what--if anything--there might be left to do before wrapping up a research project. These questions can help you confidently distinguish between "there is no answer" and "I can't find one."
STOP WHEN YOU ARE CONFIDENT YOU HAVE DONE A THOROUGH JOB
- Have you followed all the leads from secondary sources?
- Have you found all the mandatory, primary authorities?
- Have you fully updated and validated the sources you used?
- Did you move through all the steps laid out in your research plan?
If you feel confident you have done a thorough job then it may be time to stop. Double-check your thoroughness by comparing what you have done to your research plan.
STOP WHEN YOUR EFFORTS ARE PRODUCING NO NEW RESULTS
- Do all your resources lead back to each other?
- Do all your searches retrieve the same cases, statutes, regulations?
When you are finding good sources that are on point and answering your question, but stop producing new results no matter what tool you use or how you tweak your search--it is time to stop.
STOP WHEN YOU CAN ANSWER THE QUESTION(S) YOU SET OUT TO ANSWER
- Do you have a good understanding of the authorities on both sides of the issue(s)?
- Can you answer the legal question you sought to answer?
- Can you create the deliverable expected of you?
There may be a seemingly unending number of sources on your topic. If you have your mandatory authorities and can answer the question you have been asked in the format required, it is all right to stop.
STOP WHEN YOU HAVE RUN OUT OF TIME OR MONEY
- Have you gone over or are you nearing the project money limitations?
- Are you spending more time or money than the project is worth?
- Are you pushing against a deadline?
- Have you left yourself time to organize your research into something useable?
What if you are out of time/money and you are still not finished? Communicate with the assigning partner or client for whom you are doing the work. Tell them / ask them: (1) This is what I have done, (2) This is what needs to be done, and (3) Whether I should continue my research.
Creating Legal Research Deliverables
When undertaking a legal research assignment, it is a best practice to think about what the result of the project should look like when you are finished. The output--or deliverable--will vary based on a number of factors.
You may have been asked to prepare a memo, draft a brief, or prepare a letter to a client. Each of these documents have their own structure and requirements. For example, a memo is an objective piece of legal writing which should demonstrate the full picture of the legal authority on both sides on an issue. In objective writing, you would almost exclusively cite to primary authority. An appellate brief (like the one you will write in the spring), however, is a persuasive deliverable addressed to the court. While primary authority will remain the most dominate part of your research support, legislative history, legal and non-legal secondary sources, and statistics and other data might find their way into your final product. Thinking in advance about the format will help you efficiently craft a legal research plan and assess the completeness of your final research.
CREATING HIGH-QUALITY DELIVERABLES
There are a few best practices which can help ensure your final product will be polished and useful.
- Answer the questions asked in the manner expected. This may seem like a 'no-brainer,' but it is important to ask yourself whether the task assigned has been achieved. This also means not answering more than you have been asked to answer. It can be perceived as a time-waster or inefficient to take on too much. If you identify additional areas which might need to be researched, bring them up and ask whether this work should be pursued.
- Pay attention to details!!! It is not enough to simply run spell check. Read through your final product carefully. Pay attention to citation. Make sure the citation format is appropriate for the jurisdiction or context.
- Even when the deliverable is an e-mail, remove the "I" "we" language from your research assessment and explanation. This allows your work to be forwarded to another attorney or the client. Your assigning attorney will appreciate the eliminated steps of having to re-frame your work.