Constructing a research strategy is an important first step in the legal research process. If you have developed a successful research strategy in the past, you may only need to adapt it to legal research, incorporating those parts of this sample strategy that work for you. As you get more sophisticated and knowledgeable in a particular area, your strategy will evolve.
Take a look at our Step by Step Strategy and our Research Log FAQ for more information.
You may also find the Strategy Worksheet and Search Terms Worksheet helpful.
Before you begin research, take time to think about what you are being asked to do. Consider deadlines, time available, work product expected, as well as dollar, time, and resource limitations. Do you have all the information you need to get started? Try to clarify and break complex issues into manageable parts. Reevaluate the issues as needed.
Get in the habit of evaluating your sources as you go. Be aware of the scope, currency, authority and coverage of the resources. Ask your peers for recommendations, other lawyers may know of good starting points and reliable sources. Always ask your supervisor for hints on where to begin research.
Remember also that most primary law is duplicated in more than one source. Always consider alternatives in case the source you are seeking is unavailable.
The single most important aspect of successful legal research is the need for a PLAN. Before you begin, think about what you want to accomplish. Make yourself an outline describing what you know, and then make another outline describing how you will go about finding the information you do not know.
If you get stuck, take a break, or move on to something else. If you find yourself moving in circles, ask someone for their opinion of your strategy. You will not always be able to find an answer. Much of lawyering concerns cases of first impression, so sometimes what you are looking for simply does not exist.
Construct a useful note taking system (spreadsheets can be useful). Take notes on your sources as you go along. Make sure you have all relevant citation information (full case and code citations, author, title, publisher, dates, library call numbers and web addresses) as you go along so you won't have to go back and check again for a cite you missed. Be aware of and write down all related terms and descriptors for your facts and issues as you proceed.
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