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Summer Clerks Research Guide

Strategies and research tips for working law students

1. Make a Plan

Ask Questions

Do a quick preliminary analysis, and take the time to answer whowhatwhenwhere (jurisdiction)why, and how.

  • For example, if you know starting out that you are looking at an issue of federal law, you can limit your preliminary research to resources that focus on federal law.

Further questions can help keep you organized and limit your work.

  • "How much time do I have to complete this research?"
  • What do you want for the final product - memo, contract, brief, motion, or something else?"
  • "Has anyone else worked on this?"

Clarify your Questions

  • If you are unclear about any part after your preliminary analysis (the who, what, when, where, why, and how), now is the time to clarify.

2. Keep a Research Log

Research Logs & Credible Research

Keep a detailed record of what you researched, what you found, and how long you spent on that issue. This is especially helpful when your entire work product is mostly an explanation of how you spent your time.

  • Maintain your log so that someone else could pick up where you left off.
  • Keep track of your time for client billing or funding purposes.
  • Common research questions for summer jobs often ask you to prove a negative. For example:
    • "Can you make sure there's nothing new about [x]?"
    • "I don't think there's anything that says we can't do this. Can you check?"

One great way to back up your answer to these kinds of questions is to provide a summary of your research log.

Your research is more credible—your employer will be more confident in your final answer—if you show clearly that you checked authoritative secondary sources and thoroughly reviewed relevant primary law. 

3. Secondary Sources

Use secondary sources effectively by choosing appropriate sources and using them well.


Choose a good starting point.

Ask your supervisor for recommendations on particular treatises or practices guides, or use a research guide from a law library. Types of secondary sources include: Legal encyclopedias, Law reviews, ALRs, Treatises, Practice guides, Looseleaf services, and others.

Always search at least two ways.

  • Index
  • Tables of cases or statutes
  • Table of contents
  • Full-text search

4. Primary Law

Focus on finding the best primary law.

  • Be attentive to mandatory vs. persuasive character of authorities.
  • Focus on opinions cited frequently in secondary sources.
  • Focus on opinions with similar facts.
  • Focus on relevant opinions from your court or judge.

5. Verify, Expand, and Update

Expand your research using primary law, and update all of your primary authorities.

  • Cases: use Headnotes (citing cases and key numbers)
  • Statutes: use Notes of Decisions and other related materials
  • Both: use citing references (limit by jurisdiction, etc.) and annotations (Context & Analysis)

Verify authorities are still good law.

  • Cases: Check for Negative Treatment
    • Narrow by headnote, jurisdiction
    • Watch for "overruled by," "overruling recognized by," "abrogated by," and other terms indicating negative treatment
    • Look at "distinguished by" cases only if they're relevant ( in terms of e.g. jurisdiction, judge, facts, attorney)
  • Statutes: Check for citator flags, check currency

Do at least one final “clean-up search.”

  • Use the right database - narrow your selection to the cases in your jurisdiction and time frame.
  • One option: big box search. Use three good words (not too generic, not too specific.)
  • Another option: "advanced" search. Templates have cheat sheets of common syntax, e.g. /p  

6. Analyze & Repeat

Analyze your facts in light of what you found, and repeat the cycle if necessary.

Legal research is almost always iterative. It can involve multiple issues that intersect in complicated ways. As you go through each research step, keep track of paths that you will address after you finish exploring your initial hypothesis.

You might have to go through the many steps in the process more than once if:

  • you know when you start that you have multiple issues, e.g. both procedural and substantive; or
  • you discover new terms of art, legal concepts that are new to you, or updated facts.

Your research log should help you stay organized. Make sure you understand the background doctrine and the important primary sources before you move on to related issues, so that you can make effective use of your time.

Practice Tip: Check in and clarify

  • Check in with your supervisor to make sure you're on the right track.

  • If you've identified legal concepts that are new to you, clarify their importance with your supervisor.