Legal Research 101: A Step-by-Step Guide
March 20, 2023
Legal research is crucial for lawyers, paralegals, and law students. And it can be a struggle for even the most experienced legal professionals—but it can be overwhelming for beginners.
In this blog post, we’ll cover the basics of legal research, including primary and secondary sources, case law, statutes, regulations, and more. Whether just starting your legal career or looking to refresh your knowledge, this guide will provide a solid foundation for effective legal research. Let’s dive in!
What is legal research?
Legal research is the process of identifying and analyzing legal information to support a legal argument or decision. It involves searching for and analyzing primary and secondary sources, such as case law, statutes, regulations, legal dictionaries, treatises, and law review articles.
There are many reasons you might conduct legal research, including:
- Looking for case law that backs up your motion or brief
- Identifying case law that refutes an opposing argument
- Supporting the general narrative of your case
- Providing legal counsel to clients
- Putting together a memo or brief for law school
Effective legal research can make all the difference in the success of a legal case or argument. Legal research is essential for lawyers, judges, law students, paralegals, and anyone involved in the legal industry. It requires critical thinking, analytical skills, and attention to detail to ensure that legal information is accurate, relevant, and up to date.
How to do legal research
Legal research can be overwhelming and takes many forms depending on your goals. Here are some general steps you’ll likely take in any given legal research project.
Step 1: Gather and understand the key facts of your legal case
A solid legal case starts with strong legal research. So before scouring case laws and court opinions for data, stepping back and setting a few goals is important. What are you hoping to accomplish with this case, and what key facts will support your argument?
Once you understand the information you’re looking for, ask yourself these questions to start your research on the right foot.
Key questions to ask yourself before starting legal research
What are the basics?
Whether working with a client or writing a law brief for school, always start with the basics. What’s the “who, what, why, when, where, and how?”
Write a quick summary, especially since you’ll likely need it for a statement of facts in a filing or legal brief. You never know what facts might be helpful later! Even if details you think may not be relevant now, include them on your list.
Pro tip: Record your essential facts in a case management tool. While it may be tempting to skip this step, a case management tool will help you streamline your legal process, reduce human error, and save you time in the long run as you juggle multiple clients.
What's the legal issue?
Next, identify the actual legal issue you’re hoping to solve. Does your client need help to settle a property ownership dispute? Or are they pursuing worker’s compensation for an accident that happened on the clock?
No matter the legal research project, having a clear sense of the legal problem is crucial to determining your desired outcome. A clear end goal will help you stay focused and on topic throughout your casework.
What jurisdiction are you operating in?
When it comes to legal research, casting a wide net can be a bad thing. There are endless amounts of court opinions and legal databases that you could sort through. But your research will have been for naught if they’re irrelevant to your case.
That’s why it’s necessary to identify the relevant jurisdiction for your case. Does it deal with federal or state law? If a state, which one? You might find applicable case law from a Washington state supreme court that supports your argument, but it won’t hold up with opposing counsel if you’re operating in Montana.
Create a research plan
Now, it’s time to think about where you’ll go to perform legal research. While Google might be a good start for some of the basic facts you need, it’s probably not enough. Legal encyclopedias and law journals have traditionally supported lawyers as they’ve conducted research, but technology has also made the process a lot easier now. Law firms might invest in an online legal research service to comb through relevant statutes legal topics.
Step 2: Gather sources of law
The next step as you conduct legal research is to gather relevant law sources.
There are two different kinds of sources: primary law and secondary law. As you start your research, it's important to note that you should start with secondary law materials.
Why? Because these sources will help you understand what experts have to say about a legal topic before you start your case and investigate primary materials. Think of it as building a knowledgeable foundation for your argument: you'll sound smarter (and win your case) if you know what experts are saying about the legal topic you're researching.
What are secondary legal sources?
Secondary legal sources are publications that analyze, interpret, or explain primary legal sources. They are not the law itself, but rather resources that provide commentary, context, or background information on the law. Examples of secondary legal sources include:
- legal encyclopedias and dictionaries
- law review articles
- legal treatises
- practice guides
- annotated codes
- Law journals
- Legal news
- Jury instructions
Secondary sources can be helpful for several reasons, including providing a deeper understanding of legal concepts, identifying key issues and arguments, and finding additional primary sources. They can also help determine the law's current state and identify any changes or developments in legal trends or interpretations.
It is important to note that secondary legal sources are not authoritative sources of law and should not be relied upon as legal precedent. Instead, they can be used to support and supplement primary legal sources in legal research and analysis.
What are primary legal sources?
Primary legal sources establish legal rules and principles. The existing laws, regulations, and judicial decisions create, interpret, and enforce legal principles and rules. Examples of primary legal sources include:
- Statutes: Written laws enacted by legislative bodies at the federal, state, or local level.
- Case law: Decisions made by courts in the course of resolving disputes.
- Regulations: Rules and standards issued by administrative agencies to implement and interpret statutes.
- Constitutions: Written documents that establish the basic principles and structure of a government.
Primary legal sources are considered the most authoritative sources of law and are relied upon to determine legal rights and obligations. They are often used in legal research and analysis to interpret and apply the law to specific cases or situations. It is important to note that primary legal sources can be complex and require careful analysis and interpretation to determine their meaning and scope.
Step 3: Make sure you’re using “good” law
Another important step in the legal research process is to verify that any cases and statutes you use are still "good law" — in other words, that they're still valid and relevant. Overruled or unconstitutional statutes won't help you win any cases.
Can older cases still be considered "good?"
Whenever possible, it's a good idea to use the most recent cases possible. They're more likely to be relevant to your case and are less likely to have been rendered obsolete. That said, recency isn't mandatory.
A case that's 30 years old could still be considered "good law" if it hasn't been overruled or otherwise made irrelevant. If it fits with the facts of your case and falls within your jurisdiction, it could still be helpful for your argument!
Use a citator
A citator can help you check to see if your research contains "good" law. Citators verify legal authority by providing the history and precedent for any cases, statutes, and legal sources you use.
Most legal databases have their own citator tools, which flag negative materials and can help you evaluate whether a case is "good" law. Citator tools can also help you find other relevant cases that cite the opinion in question.
Step 4: Sum up results and look for gaps
Once your initial legal research process is complete, compile it into a legal memorandum. This will help you identify any gaps in the facts you've collected and anticipate any additional information you might need.
A good legal memorandum:
- States the facts of the case
- Identifies the issue
- Applies “good” law to the facts
- Predicts any counterpoints
- Assesses the outcome of the case
The best tips and strategies for conducting legal research
Conducting legal research can be a challenging task, requiring both expertise and a strategic approach. Here are our best tips and strategies for conducting effective legal research, to help you to navigate the complexities of the legal system with confidence.
Think about the opposing counsel’s arguments
Consider your case from all angles. What will your opposition's arguments look like? Think competitively as you perform legal research, and search for facts that will refute any legal basis the opposing party may claim.
Don't stop researching
Your research isn't over until your assignment is submitted or your case is closed. Don't cut corners and use all of the time you have available to you. You never know when you're going to find a vital piece of research that could positively impact your case.
Take advantage of legal research tools
In recent years, legal research technology has transformed the way lawyers and legal professionals conduct research. With the help of advanced search algorithms, machine learning, and natural language processing, legal research technology can help to streamline the research process, increase efficiency, and provide more accurate and comprehensive results.
Here are a few tools that help streamline the legal research process:
- ROSS Intelligence is a legal research platform that's driven by AI. ROSS lets you highlight statements in your memorandums and briefs to instantly search for cases and statutes that cover similar laws. You can also use ROSS to look for negative case treatment in your pleadings and law briefs.
- Casetext’s CARA AI search technology and automated review tools help lawyers speed up their legal searches. You can use Casetext to start your research with a complaint or legal brief, and find highly relevant, tailored search results and resources. Not only does Casetext find facts and legal issues, but it will filter results to the jurisdiction you're looking for. Casetext’s citator also makes it easier to check and flag any bad law.
Document your research with law practice management software
A poor documentation system can ruin your entire legal research process. Law practice management software can help you record your research in an efficient, streamlined, and automated way—so that no detail ever falls through the cracks.
Smokeball's legal case management software keeps your entire law firm organized by helping you collect details during client intake, saving them to the correct case matter and auto-populating the documents you need with the correct information. And our Client Portal helps you communicate with clients, request more details when you need it, and share research results.
In conclusion, legal research is an essential skill for lawyers, law students, and other legal professionals. By mastering the basics of legal research, including identifying primary and secondary legal sources, using legal research tools effectively, and developing a strategic approach to research, legal professionals can improve the quality of their work and provide better outcomes for their clients.
With the help of Smokeball's legal practice management software, legal research can become a more efficient, and effective process. We're here to support your law firm from the initial research stage to client communication to invoicing and billing when your case is closed.
FAQs about legal research
What is shepardizing in legal research?
Shepardizing is a process used in legal research to determine whether a particular case or statute is still good law. It involves checking the history and subsequent treatment of the case or statute to ensure that it has not been overruled, superseded, or otherwise invalidated. Shepardizing is an important step in legal research to ensure the accuracy and relevance of the sources being used.
Can I use Google for legal research?
Yes, Google can be a great first step to find basic details for your case. Google Scholar is also a good resource for lawyers conducting legal research. It contains an extensive database of state and federal cases, with superior search functionality.
However, Google is clear that the resources they provide are not vetted or approved by a legal professional:
“Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google™ does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate.”
So it's important to verify that any of the sources you pull from Google Scholar are accurate, and are considered "good" law.
How to do legal research as a paralegal?
A good paralegal will follow the steps of D.I.S.P.U.T.E. to define the legal issues of the case and find relevant case law.
- Did you identify all of the relevant parties involved in the case?
- Is the location important?
- Some items or objects may be important to the case.
- Put the events in chronological order.
- Understanding the events will give you the basis of action or the issues that are involved in the case.
- Take into consideration the opposing counsel’s arguments in the case.
- Evaluate the legal remedy or the relief sought in the case.
Learn more about Smokeball document management for law firms
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