Legal Research 101: Tips and Tricks

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01Nov2010

Legal Research 101: Tips and Tricks

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By Christie Koch

Doing work

Over twenty years ago, I took my first steps into a law library.  At the age of seventeen, my first impression was of awe as I was confronted by rows and rows of legal authorities, most of which would lead me to yet another legal authority.  The biggest question in my mind on that first day was how I would determine not only where to start my research, but also the path I would follow to lead me to the absolute answer to my legal issue.  I was doing research at that time for a legal research class I was taking, and, of course, my final fear was where my research would end.  It was difficult as a beginning researcher to determine whether my research was complete.  Had I done everything possible to reach the proper conclusion?  Twenty years later, I am convinced that the end result of legal research is often a little like trying to find the end of the internet.  You’re never quite sure if there’s more out there.

Legal research can be as simple as finding the correct government agency in an administrative law case or so complicated you may not come to a clear conclusion until the case litigation has concluded.  These days I find legal research to be a relaxing hobby and intellectually stimulating as a paralegal.  Once you have determined that legal research is necessary on a case, you must explore your factual analysis to isolate your primary legal issue.  Often there is more than one legal issue in a case and research is best done when it is focused on the primary issue.  This entails examining the parties, the nature of the dispute, the legal basis that gives rise to the cause of action, any defenses to that legal basis, and what relief is sought.  These facts will assist you in identifying your legal issues.  Once you have determined how the law applies to the facts of your case, you are ready to begin your research.

Whether you learned to research through the IRAC method (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) or the old CARTWHEEL method (word association surrounding the legal issue by using the index and/or table of contents of law books), your goal will be to find primary and secondary authority which the Court may rely upon in coming to a conclusion on its case.  Primary authority is law (i.e., statutes, regulations, ordinances, or treaties) and secondary authority is non-law (i.e., legal periodicals or treatises).  Mandatory authority is information the Court must rely on (primary authority only), however secondary authority is also referred to as persuasive authority because it is most likely a prior opinion the Court is not required to rely on, but may still find convincing or “persuasive.”  For a Court opinion to be considered mandatory authority, the case must be “on point” or analogous and the opinion must have been written by a Court superior to the Court considering the opinion.

In determining your primary authority, you should also consider the court jurisdiction, your regional area, and your subject matter.  You should use cases that are similar factually to your present case.  Don’t forget to “shepardize” or “key cite” your cases to make sure the case is still “good law.”  If you are performing your legal research through Westlaw, you can shepardize through their Key-Cite system.  Lexis-Nexis provides Shepard’s online or via CD-Rom.  If the case has been overruled, excessively criticized, or modified, you should not cite it as authority.  Shepard’s will allow you to shepardize state or federal statutes, cases, Attorney General Opinions, Law Reviews, ALR Annotations, or legal texts.  Make sure to check your case citations against the Uniform System of Citation “Bluebook” or ALWD Citation Manual (Association of Legal Writing Directors).  You can also check citations online at http://legalcitation.net/ or http://www.law.cornell.edu/citation/.  Incorrect citation is a common mistake in legal briefs and a very important part of a paralegal’s job in the legal briefing process.

Once you master the basics of legal research, you may want to expand your knowledge base to non-traditional means of research.  There is an extensive list of legal research websites on the internet.  Resources extend from your subscription services such as Westlaw or Lexis to the free websites such as Findlaw (www.findlaw.com) or Internet Legal Research Group (http://www.ilrg.com).  There are other fee-based services available such as LoisLaw (http://www.loislaw.com) and VersusLaw (http://www.versuslaw.com); however, these services are not as comprehensive as Westlaw and Lexis.  They will, however, be much more economical to a paralegal or sole practitioner.

If you know your citation, both Westlaw and Lexis provide avenues to retrieve the case directly without searching terms.  Additionally, they both use a search system based upon connectors to link-related ideas.  In either program, the asterisk (*) can be placed in the middle or at the end of a word to represent a variable letter or number.  For instance, if you are searching for a case that relates to a certain statute subpart, you can list the number of the statute with an asterisk (*) behind it to retrieve cases which relate to that statute subpart.  Likewise, the exclamation point (!) in both programs is used as a root expander placed at the end of a word to retrieve all versions of that word.  Westlaw offers search options for a citation, natural language, terms and connectors or by title.  Choose important terms to form your issue as well as alternatives.  Lexis offers search options for a citation, party name, case brief, or formulation of words and alternatives to search your issue.

Keep searching and you will find many avenues for your research.  One of the best places to start your internet research is American Law Sources Online (ALSO) (http://www.lawsource.com/also/), as it is a well-organized list of references and links to legal research websites available on the internet.  Another great site which offers bill search, resolutions, the Congressional Record, activity in Congress, Committee information, treaties and other valuable government resources is Thomas (http://www.thomas.gov).  Thomas has set up its search on the home page so it is extremely easy to use and contains detailed information.

If you become familiar with the websites available, you will be able to do extensive legal research on the internet more efficiently and effectively.  Most legal websites arrange information by subject, type of document or source.  If you are looking for public information, start with your favorite search engine, such as Google (www.google.com) or its energy-efficient equivalent Blackle (www.blackle.com).   Courts, regulations and legislation are often online and can be accessed through this type of word association.  Law Review articles are available on the internet through http://www.lawreview.org.  You can even access the House of Representatives Law Library at http://www.house.gov or the Senate Law Library at http://www.senate.gov.  State and federal opinions can be located through http://www.lexisone.com/legalresearch/lrfreecaselaw.html LexisOne (http://www.lexisone.com) requires registration, but is free and is intended for small firms and solo practitioners.  It provides the full text of all U.S. Supreme Court cases, as well as the last five years of federal and state appellate court cases, selected legal forms, and even an Internet Research Guide.

Another great resource on the internet is www.nolo.com, where you can access a legal encyclopedia, legal dictionary, caselaw, statutes, and even calculators for number-crunching.  The World Wide Virtual Library for Law can be found at www.vlib.org.  Many law schools also have helpful links on their websites.

Some of the most useful and easiest to use are:
C ornell University Law School (www.law.cornell.edu),
Emory University Law School (www.law.emory.edu),
University of Chicago Law School (www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/law), and
Washburn University Law School (www.washlaw.edu).   Drafts of Uniform and Model Acts can be found on the University of Pennsylvania Law School website (www.law.upenn.edu/bll/ulc/ulc.htm).

State or local bar association websites and the American Bar Association (http://www.americanbar.org/aba.html) website are also excellent resources.  The American Bar Association website also includes “LAWlink:  ABA Legal Research Starting Points” (http://www.lawlink.com/), which will lead you to various other helpful links.  The Library of Congress (http://loc.gov/) can assist you in a guide to Federal, State, and United States Territories Law.  Looking for a federal or state government agency?  Try FirstGov http://www.firstgov.gov/Topics/Reference_Shelf.shtml#Laws or FedLaw (http://www.thecre.com/fedlaw/default.htm).  Interested in a high-profile criminal case?  You are likely to find information regarding the case at http://www.courttv.com/archive/legaldocs/.

Another great asset for legal research is the public list serves available to paralegals.  My personal favorite is Paralegal Gateway (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ParalegalGateway/).  You can find other lists at “Lyo’s Law Lists” (http://www2.lib.uchicago.edu/~llou/) or through Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com/) by searching “paralegal.”  Your biggest asset in research is your legal network, whether it is other paralegals, attorneys, court reporters, bailiffs, court staff, or vendors.

Once you find that your research keeps leading you back to the same cases, and you have shepardized these cases and checked their citations, you can be reasonably sure you have done a thorough job researching the primary issue.  The next step is to organize your Memorandum of Law and produce it to the attorney for review.  A good format to use is Heading, Issue, Brief Answer, Facts, Discussion and Conclusion.  You should format your Issue as a question and verify the issue with the attorney before beginning your research to avoid framing the wrong issue.  The discussion should include an explanation of how the law relates to the facts of your case.  Ultimately, the legal conclusion is something the attorney will determine and you should never share your Memorandum with the client as it could constitute legal advice.  The purpose of the Memorandum is to provide information to your attorney.  You should keep your Memorandum short and to the point.   The attorney needs the answer to the question, but does not need to know the facts of every case that led you to that answer.

In conclusion, legal research and writing is not complicated, but it does take practice, and the more you research and evaluate your conclusions, the better you will be at it.  The best way to learn is to dig in and begin researching!

About the Author

Christi Koch received her Paralegal degree in 1991. She is a trial paralegal, specializing in personal injury litigation. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and is a National Dean’s List Scholar. Christi is an Advanced Certified Paralegal in Trial Practice and joined the firm of Inserra & Kelley in 2002. She is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants, the Nebraska Association of Legal Assistants, and a paralegal affiliate of the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). She is originally from Orchard, Nebraska, and has been working in the legal field for over 19 years.

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