Law students know that their briefs and memos need to be backed up by relevant research in order to carry any weight in the classroom, or in the real world. Being a good writer helps, but it’s only 50% of success. You also need to do your research. Starting with research can be tough, but you will get the hang of it soon! Here are some legal research tips that every law student can follow for better results.
Define the purpose of your memo
Many students make their first mistake right at the beginning by failing to identify the purpose of their research. You need to determine what the issue behind your memo is. What is your desired outcome? What’s the purpose of your memo? Identifying this will help you easier navigate the research that lies ahead of you.
Don’t jump into the research just yet! Before you do, you should create a research strategy. Going on LexisNexis and typing random things in the search bar won’t get you far. It might work once or twice, but it’s not a guarantee of success. You need to know what you are looking for. Besides, it’s easy to get sidetracked when you don’t have a clear plan.
In summary, understand your issue and the purpose of your text, and create a research strategy.
Prepare for your research
While you’re creating your research plan, you can also identify the appropriate legal research tools for your task. To do that, you need to have a pretty good understanding of the sources and the research tools that are available to you.
Starting your research with secondary sources before you move on to primary pays off in most cases. Secondary sources can give you a better understanding of the issue at hand and provide some background. Plus, they will lead you to primary sources through citations anyway.
Focus on the relevant jurisdiction
As a young student or a brand new lawyer, you might want to do your due diligence by doing hours and hours of research. While your dedication is noteworthy, some of your research might not be very helpful to your case. You need to focus on relevant cases only. That means cases that took place in your state.
Cases from other states can be helpful, but a lot rides on state law. You might waste a lot of time researching cases that took place under different jurisdictions. Visit lawcator.org to find out more about your relevant jurisdiction.
Use smart search terms
This mistake is not exclusive to law students. Many students and adults everywhere still don’t know how to find what they’re looking for on the internet. For instance, typing in the whole phrase or question is pointless most of the time. If the question is generic enough, you might find the answer that you’re looking for because people before you have used the same terms. However, in most cases pertaining to law, it will lead to a confusing result. Focus on short search terms that are integral to the issue instead of typing in the whole problem.
Learn to navigate cases
When you’re looking for cases, you might find some that seem great, until you realize that the outcome is different than what you are hoping for. If the case has relevant information, its outcome doesn’t render it useless. You can use it as a point of comparison, to show that the case you’re working on is actually quite different and deserves a different outcome. Point out the things your plaintiff did or didn’t do as opposed to the plaintiff in the case you’re citing.
Don’t focus too much on the outcome of the case. Instead, focus on finding cases that can help you prove your point. You can even use a similar case as an example of bad law and contrast it with your good law. Law is not like math, where you can follow the same method to solve different problems. Each case is unique.
If you manage to find a case that’s quite helpful to yours, use it to find other examples. See which cases cited this one. They could lead you to more useful citations or provide information relevant to your case. It doesn’t even matter if the cases you find use the original case as an example of bad law. You can make it work for you by spinning it and contrasting it with your case.
Don’t be afraid to finish
If you dig deep enough, you might reach a point where you keep running into the same sources over and over again. At that point, it’s time to finish, even if you’re not satisfied with the outcome of your research. Maybe you’re stuck in a loop because you keep using the same search terms or publishers. If that’s not the case, you might just be done with the research portion of your project.
At the end of the day, it’s never about finding all the sources in the world that pertain to your case. It’s about locating the sources that can aid you in proving your point. That also has a lot to do with your skills and ability to apply different situations to yours. The point is, don’t be afraid to finish when you’re done.
Final words of advice
- You need to have a set of legal research tools in your toolbox that will help you find relevant sources.
- Realize that not every case is what it seems. Some might seem relevant, but they aren’t. Others seem completely useless, while they can actually be quite helpful.
- Put the time in but don’t spend hours in a loop of the same sources. Nobody will sympathize with you if you give up after 3 simple searches. At the same time, if the last 10 searches have led to the same result, it’s time to stop.
- Focus on quality and application instead of quantity and similarity.