The best legal research is that which you can do fast and do well (the first time!). Like you, our JD reference librarians first sharpened their legal research skills in their 1L legal research and writing class, and have learned a lot since then through years of practical research on the job. Here are their top tips for conducting efficient and comprehensive legal research:
Seek secondary sources: 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 statutes, start by looking at the statute, and find Notes of Decisions as well as 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. The Notes of Decisions are summaries of important cases that discuss the statute or regulation in question and are organized by topic. You can also navigate in Westlaw to helpful secondary sources that will collect relevant case law, such as the ALR Library, underneath the Context & Analysis tab.
For relevant case law, use headnotes and KeyCite rather than trying to “Google” everything: Attorney editors 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 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. In Lexis, when you find your legal issue, you can click “Shepardize – Narrow by this Headnote” to find more relevant authority.
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.
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