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Legal Research Strategy

A step-by-step guide to legal research for beginners.

Legal Research Strategy

About This Guide

This guide will walk a beginning researcher though the legal research process step-by-step. These materials are created with the 1L Legal Research & Writing course in mind. However, 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

Running Time: 3 minutes, 13 seconds.

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 as a problem or story about a series of events. In law school, these stories are called fact patterns. In practice, facts may arise 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. You must 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 have begun your research, you will need to keep track of your work. Logging your research will help you to avoid missing sources and explain your research strategy. You will likely be asked to explain your research process when in practice. Researchers can keep paper logs, folders on Westlaw or Lexis, or online citation management platforms.

Running Time: 3 minutes, 56 seconds.
 

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

Consider using the following research log as a starting place: 

Tracking with Folders

Westlaw and Lexis offer options to create folders, then save and organize your materials there.

Tracking with Citation Management Software

For long term projects, platforms such as Zotero, EndNote, Mendeley, or Refworks might be useful. These are good tools to keep your research well organized. Note, however, that none of these platforms 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. Starting with 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

Consider the following when deciding which type of secondary source is right for you:

  • 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 have likely used before.

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. 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, are often called annotations. They provide background, analysis, and citations to relevant cases, statutes, articles, and other annotations. ALR annotations are invaluable tools to quickly find primary law on narrow legal questions.

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. They also contain comments, notes, or developments in the law written by law students. Articles often focus on new or emerging areas of law and may offer critical commentary. Some law reviews are dedicated to a particular topic while others are general. Occasionally, law reviews will include issues devoted to proceedings of panels and symposia.

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). ALI is a prestigious organization comprised of judges, professors, and lawyers. They distill the "black letter law" from cases to indicate trends in common law. Resulting in a “restatement” of existing common law into a series of principles or rules. Occasionally, they make recommendations on what a rule of law should be.

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 the following:

  • a concisely stated rule of law,
  • comments to clarify the rule,
  • hypothetical examples,
  • explanation of purpose, and
  • exceptions to the rule  

To access restatements visit:

Primary Sources

Primary Authority

Primary authority is "authority that issues directly from a law-making body."  Authority, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).   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. Statute, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

We typically start primary law research here. If there is a controlling statute, cases you look for later will interpret that law. There are two types of statutes, annotated and unannotated.

Annotated codes are a great place to start your research. They combine statutory language with citations to cases, regulations, secondary sources, and other relevant statutes. This can quickly connect you to the most relevant cases related to a particular law. 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.

Running Time: 4 minutes.
 

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. However, many areas of law are affected by regulations. So make sure not to skip this step if they are relevant to your question.

Running Time: 3 minutes, 48 seconds.
 

To learn more about working with regulations, visit:

Case Basics

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

 

Running Time: 3 minutes, 10 seconds.

Unpublished Cases

Up to  86% of federal case opinions are unpublished. You must determine whether your jurisdiction will consider these unpublished cases as persuasive authority. The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure have an overarching rule, Rule 32.1  Each circuit also has local rules regarding citations to unpublished opinions. You must understand both the Federal Rule and 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 by subject, citation, or using keywords.  To maximize your time, identify important cases using a secondary source.
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. They also use them 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 an outline that allows you to search 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. This can help you identify particularly important cases on the relevant subject.

Running Time: 4 minutes, 43 seconds.

 

Each major legal database has its own digest:

Start by identifying a relevant topic in a digest.  Then you can limit those results to your jurisdiction for more relevant results.  Sometimes, you can keyword search within only the results on your topic in your jurisdiction.  This is a particularly powerful research method.

 

One Good Case Method

After following the steps above, you will have identified some relevant cases on your topic. You can use good cases you find to locate other cases addressing the same topic. These other cases often apply similar rules to a range of diverse fact patterns.

Running Time: 4 minutes, 11 seconds.

 

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." Citator, 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:

Running Time: 6 minutes, 26 seconds.
 

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

Running Time: 2 minutes, 28 seconds.

 

For more guidance on when to stop your research see:

Automated Services

Automated services can check your work and ensure that you are not missing important resources. You can learn more about several automated brief check services.  However, these services are not a replacement for conducting your own diligent research.

Getting Help

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CC License

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Creative Commons License

This guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

You may reproduce any part of it for noncommercial purposes as long as credit is included and it is shared in the same manner.