A good Advanced Legal Research plan consists of three steps:
- Don’t wait until a case comes in your door. Maintain subject matter competency by reading blogs and journal articles that relate to your practice areas. This means that you will not have to start from scratch every time a novel issue presents itself.
- Use available free resources to develop a basic understanding of your case’s issues. These resources will often have a good overview of topics and provide key terms, decisions, and resources that you can use for more in-depth research.
- Take the results of your basic research and run it through a modern legal search engine.
Let’s look at each step with a little more detail.
Maintaining Subject Matter Competency
Maintaining subject matter competency will save you a lot of time. Rather than having to learn new law under the pressure of a court deadline, you can take time each day to read the latest developments in your practice area. Legal journals and law-focused blogs provide great overviews of legal topics and timely occurrences.
Many academic articles published in legal journals can be accessed through the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). The Legal Scholarship Network portion of SSRN has over one hundred thousand journal articles that lawyers can search for in-depth analysis of pressing legal issues. These articles lay out the history of many legal doctrines, and discuss emerging thoughts on case law that can distinguish new precedents.
Free Resources For Advanced Research
Legal blogs also provide the same type of analysis, but with a more conversational tone. The American Bar Association (ABA) runs a yearly contest, nominating the best 100 Blawgs each year, sorted by topic. They also have a Blawg Hall of Fame, for those blogs that consistently provided great legal content for audiences to consume. SSRN and many blogs use the Real Simple Syndication (RSS) standard for publishing.
Use reader tools like Feedly to organize and download this material for you on a daily basis. When you need to dive deeper into a specific issue, first start with free search options. These options include:
- Primary Source Materials (like the US Code or the US Supreme Court’s Bound Volumes)
- Legal Search Engines (like Google Scholar)
Modern Legal Search Engines
Once you have developed an understanding of the concepts, terms, and case law involved in your issue you should plug these terms into a modern legal search engine. Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase, spoke in a recent Clio webinar on what makes a legal search engine modern. Modern search engines not only sort and filter search queries, but also return results based on numerosity, proximity, density, and diversity.
As Ed put it, ‘Modern search engines use complex algorithms to not only give you cases you ask for, but also the cases you really meant.” Fastcase provided two examples of this advanced functionality. Their Authority Check searches for other cases that cite your case and displays the results as a list of hyperlinked case names. This is a great research tool for finding related precedents, or to help determine the continuing value of a case as a precedent.
Fastcase’s Bad Law Bot even highlights case results that have been treated negatively by the courts. Fastcase’s data visualization features also allow you to see in a glance how your case results have been treated over time, checking the rise and fall of your case over the years. This is a great way to measure the effectiveness of the case and is a feature unique to modern search engines, like Fastcase. If you follow this research plan, you should be starting from general legal knowledge, to basic understanding, and lastly to complex analysis on the search results you’ve obtained. Don’t start by trying to find the perfect case. Instead, use this approach to let the perfect case find you.