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Strategies for Success with Legal Research

Steps for conducting efficient and effective legal research


Follow these steps to research the most efficiently and effectively.

Always Have a Plan

The  most important element of successful legal research is  a PLAN. Before you begin, think about what you want to accomplish. Make an outline describing what you know, and then make another outline describing how you will go about finding the information you do not know.

Take Notes

Develop a useful note taking system. Take notes on your sources as you go along. Pay attention to which terms proved useful, which did not. Try not to duplicate your efforts. Write down full citation information as you go so you don't have to go back and check again for a cite you missed.

Know When to Ask for Help

If you get stuck, take a break, or move on to something else. If you find yourself moving in circles, ask a librarian, advisor or colleague for their opinion of your strategy. (Law firm librarians admonish their attorneys to consult the librarian after 15 minutes getting no where) 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.

Have a Back-up Plan

Remember also that much of the law is found in more than one source. Always consider alternatives in case the source you are seeking is unavailable.

Develop a Strategy that Works for You

The strategy in this guide will not fulfill everyone's needs all the time. As you get more sophisticated and knowledgeable in a particular area, your strategy will change.

Stay flexible: a strategy for legislative history research differs from an auto accident in Mexico that involved two US citizens.

Generally start you search in secondary sources because they combine statutes and cases with explanations.