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Legal Methods

The basic techniques of legal analysis, writing and research.


Can't Find Anything?

  • Make sure you understand the problem.  Did you note all the factual information you need and do you understand the assignment correctly?
  • Rethink your search terms.  Have you expanded the breadth and depth of your search terms?  Think of other ways to approach the problem and the applicable legal theories.
  • Go back to secondary sources.  The material on the topic might be scattered through many digest topics or statutory sections so that it is difficult to locate without secondary sources that compile the relevant information.   Are you looking for the wrong type of authority?  Is it a case of first impression?

What To Do If You Find an Overwhelming Amount of Material

  • Make sure you understand the problem.
  • Rethink search terms to narrow your approach. If you did word search, try subject search to focus on relevant authority.
  • Consult secondary sources.  They will identify key authorities and limit the scope of the information.
  • If you've located only secondary authority or primary persuasive authority, you might want to refocus on primary mandatory authority from the controlling jurisdiction. 
  • Narrow the legal theories you are considering.

Creating a Research Plan

Creating a research plan requires three steps:

Obtaining preliminary information about the problem

  • How much time do I have for the assignment?
  • What final work product should I produce?  A memorandum, pleading, brief, or informal report?
  • Are there any limits on the research materials I am permitted to use?  Use only authorized research tools.
  • Which jurisdiction's law applies?  Federal or state?
  • Should I research persuasive authority?  Understanding the scope of the assignment will help you focus your efforts.
  • Do you know any of the sources that are good for researching in this area of law?  Include looseleaf or other subject-matter services.
  • What background on the law or terms should I know as I begin my research?
  • Should I consult any written materials or individuals before beginning my research?  Reviewing briefs or memoranda on the same or similar issue or consulting the "resident expert" can help your research efforts.

Writing out a plan

  • Develop an initial issue statement and generate search terms -- a preliminary assessment of the problem that helps define the scope of your research. 
  • Identifying research sources -- Determine which research sources are likely to have relevant information.  Decide which of the three categories of authority (mandatory primary authority, persuasive primary authority, and secondary authority), and then within each category which specific authorities, you should consult.  Begin with what you know, identify what you do not know, and determine the best way to fill in the blanks.  At a minimum, map out your search for primary mandatory authority.
  • Print vs Electronic sources -- Some sources can be accessed more easily in one format or the other. 

Working effectively

  • Keeping track: effective notetaking -- know where you have looked and where you need to look; needed for proper citations; demonstrate that you undertook comprehensive researchto try to resolve the issues.  Keep a list of the source or database, the citation (topic and key numbers), the method of locating the source, a summary of relevant information, and any updating information.
  • Deciding when to stop -- you will know you have come full circle in your research when, after following a comprehensive research path through a variety of sources, the authorities you locate start to refer back to each other and the new sources you consult fail to reveal significant new information.

When to use Print Sources

  • When you are searching material not available online -- such as treatises and hornbooks, or legal periodicals.
  • When you need general information on a topic about which you are unfamiliar.
  • When your search terms are general or the subject of your research involves broad concepts.
  • When you are conducting statutory or regulatory research.
  • When you need to read authorities located through other means.

When to use Electronic Sources

  • When the material you need is not available in print.
  • When you have unique search terms or are searching for proper names.
  • When you need to update your research.