Skip to main content

Developing a Research Strategy: Where to Start & When to Stop

This research guide offers a step-by-step guide to tackling research, tips on the best places to start your research, and suggestions on how to recognize when your research is complete.

Bringing Research to a Close

Most beginning researchers frequently ask, "How do I know when I am done?" 

Here are a few good indicators that you've reached the end of your research project:

  • You've found the answer. Sometimes — this is rare — you will quickly find the authoritative law that applies to your fact pattern. But be sure to Shepardize or KeyCite to check to see if your sources are still good law!
  • You keep finding the same primary authority no matter which research method you use or which sources you consult. It's usually a good idea to double-check your research by checking two or three sources on the same topic to see if they all cite to the same authority. When you don't have a definitive answer after thorough research, and you keep turning up the same citations no matter where or how you look, that's a sign that there may not be a clear-cut solution to the problem.
  • Your project deadline is fast-approaching. Remember that the best research is pointless if you don't leave enough time to write the paper or to tell the client or assigning attorney what you've found.

What if you're not finding authorities that address your research issue?

We usually tell students that if research hasn't yielded any results after 30-45 minutes, it may be time to reevaluate your research strategy.

  • Think comprehensively and creatively. Research broader rules, analogous facts or doctrines, and⁄or the law of other jurisdictions.

  • Make sure you are:

    • applying a variety of research techniques
    • using both primary and secondary sources
    • using both print and online sources
    • consulting resources from different publishers or vendors (remember that Lexis and Westlaw offer a lot of the same primary sources (cases, statutes, regulations, etc.), but the secondary sources available on each system, like treatises and practice guides, tend to not overlap very much.)
  • Consult a librarian.

  • When your research isn't yielding results, it's important to keep a summary of the research steps that you took, including the names of the sources that you searched and the search queries that you used during online searches.  If you end up with little or no authority at the end of a research project, this summary will help you describe the steps that you took to your supervisors so that they can evaluate whether your research strategy was sound and whether you exhausted all possible research avenues.

What if time is running out and you still have intriguing leads to follow?

  • Quickly survey the major authorities bearing on your issue.

  • Prepare an interim report that describes the conclusions you've reached so far and your plan for further research.

    When to Stop - More Advice

    For more on when and how to wrap up your research projects, take a look at these articles.

    Some of the details may be a bit dated, but the overall advice is still sound.

    School of Law | 2130 Fulton Street | San Francisco, CA 94117-1080 | (415) 422-6307