At the end of June 2017, I finished my 1L year at ASU by sleepily turning in my final memo for Intensive Legal Research and Writing. After the All-Journal Write-on Exam, thirty writing assignments in one month instilled a sense of urgency in my legal research: I want it done fast and I want it done well the first time. My friends and I pulled off several all-nighters in that great class working on objective memos, persuasive motions, informative client letters, and tough-talking demand letters to learn the following lessons:
Look for ambiguities: A lot of the most interesting discussions in law come in the gray areas—where the law and the facts are not entirely settled or clear. This “it depends” territory can create interesting analytical puzzles for you to solve in your memo: you will want to show that you can see both sides to an argument, and you will want to demonstrate the critical reasoning skills to form a solid conclusion.
Seek secondary sources: If they’re available, secondary sources on your legal issue can quickly set you on the right path for your research. Not only can they provide a quick explanation of the law and an overview of the factors courts consider in deciding on those legal issues, but they list primary law that you will want to analyze. It’s tempting to want to “save time” by diving into the statutes and case law directly, but a little advance reading can make research a lot faster, easier, and more complete.
For relevant case law, use headnotes, KeyCites, and Citing Decisions rather than trying to “Google” everything: Lawyers at Lexis and Westlaw have analyzed cases and the legal issues they contain and have grouped together related authority to help legal researchers perform faster, more thorough research than keyword searching alone. In Lexis, when you find your legal issue, you can click “Shepardize – Narrow by this Headnote” to find more relevant authority. In Westlaw, KeyCites will arrange the legal areas and issues that a headnote addresses, from general to specific. Click on the KeyCite codes for more relevant authority.
For statutes, start by looking at the statute, and find secondary sources from there: Underneath the statutory text, Lexis will break apart the statute into the key legal issues it addresses. If you find one of the issues that your memo is intended to address, you get a quick, one-line summary of a judicial interpretation of the statute, along with a link to a case that could be super-relevant. In Westlaw, you can find similar information in the Notes of Decisions tab at the top of the page, and navigate to helpful secondary sources that will collect relevant case law, such as the ALR Library, underneath the Context & Analysis tab.
CREAC tips: When you’re explaining a precedent case, it may not be enough to list the facts the court considered and tell the reader how the court ruled. You want to analyze why the court ruled the way it did on a variety of factors. Contrasting and comparing the facts in your writing prompt will then much more clearly indicate to the reader whether or not a particular ruling will further the legal principle at issue.
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Andrea Gass, Reference Librarian