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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.

Clarify the Assignment

Before you start researching, make sure that you understand what your supervisor wants you to do.  Don't be afraid to ask questions -- both when you first receive your assignment and later on when you need clarification about the assignment.

Ellen Callinan, Senior Consultant with Axelroth & Associates and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law School, has devised the following JUST ASK formula to help new attorneys remember what to ask when they receive assignments:

J – Jurisdiction:  Which government entities have jurisdiction over this topic? Which jurisdictions do I need to research: federal, state, or local law?

U – Useful tips:  Ask your supervisor for some tips on good starting places. Are there any internal resources, such as other attorneys, briefs or research memos, that might help? Are there any recent cases, statutes or other developments?

S – Scope of research:  What scope of research is appropriate? Does the attorney want an outline or overview, or are you expected to do exhaustive research and produce a detailed research memo?

T – Terms of art:  What terms of art pertain to this issue? What are their definitions?

A – Acronyms:  What acronyms, such as HIPAA, OSHA, or ADA, are associated with this issue? What do they mean?

S – Sources:  What secondary sources (treatises, practice guides, etc.) are usually used to research this area of law? What are the most useful publications?

K – Key cost restraints:  What cost restraints apply to this assignment? How much time can be spent or billed? Will online research be allowed?

Begin With a Secondary Source

Secondary sources are materials that explain and analyze the law in a particular area.  When you're starting a research project and you're unfamiliar with an area of law, try starting with a more basic secondary source, like a "Nutshell" or a legal encyclopedia (such as California Jurisprudence or American Jurisprudence), so that you can learn the basic structure, theoretical underpinnings, and terminology of your area.

When you're more familiar with your topic, you can move to a more detailed secondary source, such as a practice guide or treatise, for deeper analysis of key cases, statutes, regulations, and other primary sources.

If you are already familiar with the area that you will be researching, you will most likely want to turn to a very detailed secondary source, such as a large looseleaf service.  An example of a looseleaf service is CCH's Standard Federal Tax Reporter.

You can find more suggestions for good starting places under the next tab in this research guide, Starting Places for Legal Research.

And remember - you may need to return to secondary sources later in your research if you find that you need to explore additional topics or learn about another area of the law.

Move to Primary Sources

When you have a basic grasp of the area of law and your specific issue, you should begin to review primary sources. Look up key statutes as soon as you find citations. Use the annotations / "notes of decisions" to locate cases. Look up potentially dispositive cases at the outset, too. Review case headnotes for leads for later digest searching and cite checking.

Consult a Variety of Sources

Your research should include a variety of sources:

  • Annotated statutes, to find summaries of cases that discuss or analyze any relevant statutes.
  • Digests, to find other cases similar to those you've already found.
  • Online case law (using terms & connectors or natural language searching).
  • American Law Reports (ALR) annotations, to find citations to primary authorities about specific legal issues from all United States jurisdictions.
  • Law review articles, to find detailed overviews of the law and to review the author's citations to find more authority on your topic.
  • Other looseleaf services, practice guides, or treatises that you haven't reviewed yet.

Use KeyCite or Shepard's to Check Status of Law and Update Your Research

You should always use KeyCite or Shepard's to check to see if the primary authority that you've located is still good law.  You can also use KeyCite and Shepard's to find additional primary or secondary sources. Both Lexis and Westlaw allow you to set up alerts that will email new citations to your sources whenever additional citing references are added to KeyCite or Shepard's. The librarians can help you set up these alerts.

Online Searching: Lexis & Westlaw

It's best to search Lexis and Westlaw after you've obtained some basic background information on your issue and you feel that you've defined your research issue thoroughly.

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Consider starting with a secondary source on Lexis and Westlaw if you haven't consulted a secondary source yet.
  • Consult a librarian or the vendors' reference attorneys (vendor help is available 24/7) for advice on creating searches (Lexis attorneys are available at 1-800-45-LEXIS, Bloomberg Law help is available at 888-560-2529, and Westlaw attorneys are available at 1-800-REF-ATTY).
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