One of the most labor-intensive tasks that support staff must undertake is legal research. Whether you’re very familiar with the area of law that you’re considering, or just beginning to take on this responsibility in your law firm, there are many ways to become better at conducting legal research.
Here are the top five essential strategies and tools to help you hone your skills and maximize your efforts, to come up with quality, comprehensive information.
5. Make sure you understand the issue
There’s nothing like spending hours researching only to have the attorney tell you that you’ve missed the point. Take notes if the request is given verbally and ask for clarification if you don’t understand specifically what’s needed.
If you’re not familiar with the type of case or possible precedents, search online to get more background. The University of Virginia Law School, for instance, can be a valuable starting point for the main practice areas.
4. Is it good law?
allow you to check a case or statute to see if the case is still good law and has not been overruled or reversed.
You don’t want your attorney to rely on a case that was limited in scope by an appellate court or to find out that there’s subsequent history that waters down his or her argument. Run your citations through one of these services before finalizing the research.
3. Create a go-to list of websites
If your firm doesn’t have a homepage for library resources—and even if it does—keep track and bookmark important websites for easy access. The state law library website usually will provide comprehensive links to online resources, for one.
It also helps to save sites that are useful for other tasks you’re commonly assigned, such as the local court docket, legal newspapers, and local court sites.
2. Take a break and assess your progress
Thorough, well-presented research results will be more impressive and useful than trying to rush to finish a job early, which can lead to mistakes, typos, and overlooked information. To that end, after you’ve spent an hour or two on the research issue, stop and consider the information you are finding. Review the original question and assess if your answers are still addressing that issue.
It’s not uncommon to either find no information whatsoever or more information than you can possibly use. In either case, compare the research issue with the material you’re finding and see if you’re still on topic. You may find that you’ve strayed from the original request or that there are terms of art or synonyms that when used help immensely. Take time to refocus before continuing.
And the number one expert legal research tip:
1. Ask for help
Although that seems like cheating, it’s not. There are resources that are available to you to point you in the right direction and reduce the time it takes to find the answers.
Consider talking to others in your law firm or in your paralegal or legal secretary association about their best practices and favorite tools. Your law librarian can suggest resources and strategies. You can also contact your state or county law library.
Additionally, the Library of Congress has a list of useful resources to get started. If you are working with a legal research service, you can meet with their team of experts to learn strategies of your own when you tackle separate research projects.
You may be called upon to research a very nuanced issue one day and cite check a brief the next. Taking advantage of these legal research tips will help you be prepared to handle whatever type of request comes your way.
What are your top research strategies? Share your tips in the comments.