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Legal Research Strategy

Legal Research Strategy

About This Guide

This guide will walk a beginning researcher though the legal research process step-by-step.  These materials are a review of and supplement to the 1L Legal Research & Writing course, but these resources will also assist upper level students engaged in any legal research project.

How to Strategize

Legal research must be comprehensive and precise.  One contrary source that you miss may invalidate other sources you plan to rely on.  Sticking to a strategy will save you time, ensure completeness, and improve your work product. 

Follow These Steps

 

Make sure that you don't miss any steps by using our:

If you get stuck at any time during the process, check this out:

Preliminary Analysis

Understanding the Legal Questions

A legal question often originates in the form of a problem or a story about a series of events.  In law school, these appear as fact patterns.  In practice, this may come in the form of an assignment from a manager or an interview with a potential client.  Start by doing the following:

Read > Analyze > Assess > Note > Generate
  • Read anything you have been given
  • Analyze the facts and frame the legal issues
  • Assess what you know and need to learn
  • Note the jurisdiction and any primary law you have been given
  • Generate potential search terms

Jurisdiction

Legal rules will vary depending on where geographically your legal question will be answered.  Thus it is essential that you determine the jurisdiction in which your claim will be heard.  These resources can help you learn more about jurisdiction and how it is determined:

This map indicates which states are in each federal appellate circuit:

A Map of the United States with Each Appellate Court Jurisdiction

Organization

Getting Started

Once you are ready to begin your research, you will need to keep track of your work.  Logging your research will ensure that you do not miss sources and can explain your research strategy, which you may be asked to do.  Researchers can keep logs on paper, in folders on Westlaw or Lexis, or in another online citation management platform.

Organizational Methods

Tracking with Paper or Excel

Many researchers create their own tracking charts.  Be sure to include:

  • Search Date
  • Topics/Keywords/Search Strategy
  • Citation to Relevant Source Found
  • Save Locations
  • Follow Up Needed

Tracking with Folders

Both Westlaw and Lexis offer an option to save materials you find to folders that you create.

Tracking with Citation Management Software

Some platforms such as Zotero, EndNote, Mendeley, or Refworks might be useful if you are working on a long term project that will require a lot of research.  These are good tools to keep your research well organized.  Please note, however, that none of these platforms are not a substitute for doing your own proper Bluebook citations.  Learn more about citation management software on our other research guides:

Secondary Sources

Types of Sources

There are three different types of sources: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.  When doing legal research you will be using mostly primary and secondary sources.  We will explore these different types of sources in the sections below.

Graph Showing Types of Legal Research Resources.  Tertiary Sources: Hollis, Law Library Website.  Secondary Sources:  Headnotes & Annotations, American Law Reports, Treatises, Law Reviews & Journals, Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, Restatements.  Primary Sources: Constitutions, Treatises, Statutes, Regulations, Case Decisions, Ordinances, Jury Instructions.

Secondary sources often explain legal principles more thoroughly than a single case or statute, so using them can help you save time.

Secondary sources are particularly useful for:

  • Learning the basics of a particular area of law
  • Understanding key terms of art in an area
  • Identifying essential cases and statutes

When considering which type of secondary source is right for you the following three considerations are particularly important:

  • Scope/Breadth
  • Depth of Treatment
  • Currentness/Reliability

 

Chart Illustrating Depth and Breadth of Secondary Sources by Type.  Legal Dictionaries (Shallow and Broad), Legal Encyclopedias (Shallow and Broad), Restatements (Moderately Deep and Broad), Treatises (Moderately Deep and Moderately Narrow), American Law Reports (Extremely Deep and Extremely Narrow), Law Journal Articles (Extremely Deep and Extremely Narrow)

 

For a deep dive into secondary sources visit:

 

 

Legal Dictionaries & Encyclopedias

Legal Dictionaries

Legal dictionaries are similar to other dictionaries that you are likely familiar with, and have used in the past.

Legal Encyclopedias

Legal encyclopedias contain brief, broad summaries of legal topics, providing introductions and explaining terms of art. They also provide citations to primary law and relevant major law review articles.  

Graph illustrating that Legal Encyclopedias have broad coverage of subject matter and content with shallow treatment of the topics.
Legal encyclopedias cover a broad range of topics superficially.

 

Here are the two major national encyclopedias:

Treatises

Treatises are books on legal topics.  These books are a good place to begin your research.  They provide explanation, analysis, and citations to the most relevant primary sources. Treatises range from single subject overviews to deep treatments of broad subject areas.

Graph illustrating that Treatises are moderate in scope and relatively deep.
Treatises typically cover a single legal subject area deeply.

 

It is important to check the date when the treatise was published, as many are either not updated, or are updated through the release of newer editions.

To find a relevant treatise explore:

American Law Reports (ALR)

American Law Reports (ALR) contains in-depth articles on narrow topics of the law. ALR articles, called annotations, provide background, analysis, and citations to relevant cases, statutes, law review articles, and other annotations.  If there is an ALR article on point, this can be one of the best tools for quickly finding primary law on a narrow legal question.

Graph illustrating that American Law Reports are narrow in scope but treat concepts deeply.
ALR articles cover a single legal question deeply.

 

This resource is available in both Westlaw and Lexis:

Law Reviews & Journals

Law reviews are scholarly publications, usually edited by law students in conjunction with faculty members. They contain both lengthy articles and shorter essays by professors and lawyers, as well as comments, notes, or developments in the law written by students. Law review articles often focus on new or emerging areas of law and may offer critical commentary. Some law reviews are dedicated to a particular topic and will include in their contents the proceedings of panels and symposia on timely legal issues.

Graph illustrating that Law Review and Journal articles are extremely narrow in scope but exceptionally deep.

Law review and journal articles are extremely narrow and deep with extensive references. 

To find law review articles visit:

Restatements

Restatements are highly regarded distillations of common law, prepared by the American Law Institute (ALI), a prestigious organization comprising judges, professors, and lawyers. The ALI distills the "black letter law" from cases to indicate trends in common law, and occasionally to recommend what a rule of law should be. They restate existing common law into a series of principles or rules.

Restatements are not primary law. However, they are considered persuasive authority by many courts. 

Graph illustrating that Restatements are broad in scope and treat topics with moderate depth.
Restatements cover many common law topics with moderate depth.

 

Restatements are organized into chapters, titles, and sections.  Sections contain a concisely stated rule of law, comments to clarify the rule, hypothetical examples, explanation of purpose, as well as exceptions to the rule.  

To access restatements visit:

Primary Sources

Primary Authority

Primary authority is authority that issues directly from a law-making body.  Sources of primary authority include:

  • Constitutions
  • Statutes 
  • Regulations
  • Case Law

Access to primary legal sources is available through:

Statutes

Statutes (also called legislation) are laws enacted by legislative bodies, such as Congress and state legislatures. 

We typically start primary law research here.  If there is a controlling statute, cases we look for later will be interpreting that law.  Also, you can find cases related to the statutory section that interests you quickly and easily, if you use an annotated statute.

Annotated codes are a great place to start your research. They combine statutory language with citations to related materials like cases, regulations, secondary sources, and cross references to other statutes.  Unannotated Codes provide only the text of the statute without editorial additions.  Unannotated codes, however, are more often considered official and used for citation purposes.

For a deep dive on federal and state statutes, visit:

Want to learn more about the history or legislative intent of a law?  Learn how to get started here:

Regulations

Regulations are rules made by executive departments and agencies. Not every legal question will require you to search regulations, but many areas of law are affected by regulations, so make sure not to skip this step in the research process if they are relevant to your question.

To learn more about working with regulations, visit:

Case Basics

In many areas of law, particularly those that rely heavily on common law principles, finding relevant caselaw will comprise a significant part of your research.

Unpublished Cases

Up to 88% of federal case opinions are unpublished. It is important to know whether your jurisdiction will consider these unpublished cases as persuasive authority. The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure have an overarching rule, Rule 32.1 and each circuit has its own local rules regarding citations to unpublished opinions. You must be familiar both with the Federal Rule and with the rule in your jurisdiction.

Each state also has its own local rules which can often be accessed through:

Finding Cases

You can browse and search for case law in the same way you search for primary sources: by subject, with a citation, or using keywords.  To maximize your efficiency use a secondary source to identify important cases that you can use as a foundation for your research.
 

Headnotes

Image of a Headnote in a Print Reporter

Headnotes show the key legal points in a case.  Legal databases use these headnotes to guide researchers to other cases on the same topic and to organize concepts explored in cases by subject.  Publishers, like Westlaw and Lexis, create headnotes, so they are not consistent across databases.

 

Digests

Headnotes are organized by subject into a large outline that allows you to search headnotes by subject.  This outline is known as a "digest of cases."  By browsing or searching the digest you can retrieve all headnotes covering a particular topic and identify the particularly important cases to which these headnotes are attached.

 

Each major legal database has its own digest:

Once you have identified a relevant topic in either digest, you can limit those results to your jurisdiction for more relevant results.

 

One Good Case Method

This method is for after you have followed the steps above and identified at least one relevant case on your topic. You will use the good case you identified to find other cases that discuss the same legal topic, and that may apply similar rules to a range of diverse fact patterns.

After selecting a relevant headnote on a case:
  • in Lexis click "More Like This Headnote"
  • in Westlaw click "Cases that Cite This Headnote"

to focus on the terms of art or key words in a particular headnote. You can use this feature to find more cases with similar language and concepts.  ​

Updating Research

Ways to Use Citators

A citator is "a catalogued list of cases, statutes, and other legal sources showing the subsequent history and current precedential value of those sources.  Citators allow researchers to verify the authority of a precedent and to find additional sources relating to a given subject." Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

Each major legal database has its own citator, the two most popular are Keycite on Westlaw and Shepard's on Lexis.

Making Sure Your Case is Still Good Law

This video answers common questions about citators:

For step-by-step instructions on how to use Keycite and Shepard's see the following:

Using Citators For

Citators serve three purposes: (1) case validation, (2) better understanding, and (3) additional research.

Case Validation

Is my case or statute good law?

Look for:

  • Parallel citations
  • Prior and subsequent history
  • Negative treatment suggesting you should no longer cite to holding.

Better Understanding

Has the law in this area changed?

Look for:

  • Later cases on the same point of law
  • Positive treatment, explaining or expanding the law.
  • Negative Treatment, narrowing or distinguishing the law.

Track Research

Who is citing and writing about my case or statute?

Look for:

  • Secondary sources that discuss your case or statute.
  • Cases in other jurisdictions that discuss your case or statute.

Identifying an End Point

Knowing When to Start Writing

For more guidance on when to stop your research see:

Automated Services

Several automated services exist that can be used to check your work and ensure that you are not missing important resources. Learn more about automated brief check services.  Keep in mind, however, that these services are not a replacement for conducting your own diligent research.

Help

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