When it comes to the practice of law, we often think about legal experience. But even the most winning legal argument will ultimately fall flat without solid legal research.
Legal research—that is, identifying, finding, and cite-checking the information and applicable laws needed to support your legal decision-making—empowers your arguments and gives substance to your legal work.
While learning how to do legal research effectively may not be the most glamorous part of being a lawyer, it can deliver a major competitive advantage. Whether you’re a law student or an experienced attorney, enhancing your legal research techniques and using smart research tools can save you time. Developing your legal research skills can also yield the most relevant information—so you can make a stronger argument and ultimately, capture more successful outcomes for your clients.
What does it take to become a pro at legal research? You need to start with a strategy and know how to use legal research tools to your advantage.
To help new and experienced lawyers strengthen their legal research techniques, this guide will review the fundamentals of the legal research process, including what sources you should turn to—and when. We’ll also discuss how and why it’s important to check that you’re using “good” law, and offer tips for how you can improve your legal research skills—no matter where you are in your career.
How to do legal research
While the techniques and tools you use may vary, the goal of legal research is simple: You want to find the relevant information (i.e. laws) that apply to the facts of your case, so you can support legal decision making. With this in mind, the legal research process can be broken down into three basic steps: Understanding the key details and questions of your legal issue, finding laws and information to support your legal argument, and checking that what you’ve found is still relevant—or good law.
Gather critical information about your legal issue
When presented with a legal issue, it’s natural to want to dive in and start looking for cases. But it’s in your best interest to first collect key details about the legal issue at hand.
Pausing to gather and record critical details (like the who, what, when, where, and how of your case) lays the foundation for a more focused, streamlined legal research process.
Establish your legal issue and your goal
Next, use your case’s critical information to pinpoint your legal issue. By establishing your legal issue and your client’s ideal outcomes before you start researching, you can construct a well-defined framework that allows you to:
- See what you know about your legal issue—and what you need to find out
- Narrow the field of potential search terms
- Identify the jurisdiction you need to focus your research within
Learn and understand the precedent in your jurisdiction
While researching, pay special attention to the geographical location where your legal issue will be resolved. Is the precedent controlling already in your jurisdiction? Or is it merely a persuasive precedent that has not yet been adopted in your jurisdiction?
Determine the type of legal sources you need
Each of the three types of legal sources you’ll work with has a purpose in the legal research process. Here’s a quick overview:
Primary legal sources are key to legal research because they establish the current law on whatever legal issue you’re working with. Primary sources, which you can find by searching legal research databases like Fastcase or Casetext, include:
- Federal and state constitutions
- Statutes or legislation (such as laws enacted by legislative bodies like Congress and state legislatures)
- Regulations (such as rules or regulations made by either federal or state agencies)
- Case law (such as court opinions or decisions issued by federal or state courts)
Secondary legal sources explain or interpret legal principles in detail, or summarize the current state of the law—giving a better understanding of a particular area of law. Secondary sources are also useful for identifying primary sources for your case (more on that later). Examples include:
- Law review articles and journals
- Practice guides
- Legal treatises
Begin your legal research with secondary sources
When it comes to legal research sources, start in the middle with secondary sources.
In addition to providing important background information on your legal issue, secondary sources save time: Instead of starting from scratch, you can leverage the expert work that’s already been done.
Think of it this way: In order to create and publish the material, experts had to go through a legal research process themselves. If a secondary source is reputable, the writer reviewed all of the available primary resources to determine what was most applicable. So, by noting the primary sources that are cited in law reviews, journals, and case-law documents, you can take advantage of the research already done.
Note: Also keep in mind that useful cases don’t necessarily have to have the same legal outcome as your goal. If you find relevant case law where the outcome didn’t match your client’s desired outcome, you shouldn’t necessarily disregard it. If the laws are aligned, you can use that case to show how the fact patterns in your client’s case are different to strengthen your own argument.
Check that you’re using “good” law
Another key step to legal research is verifying that any cases you come across in your legal research are still “good” law—that is, that any legal decision you’re looking to is still valid and relevant. Using an overruled or unconstitutional statute won’t help you win your case.
Can older cases be “good” law?
While more recent cases are preferred (after all, they’re more likely to reflect the current legal changes that could impact the case law—and are thus less likely to have been rendered obsolete), recency isn’t mandatory.
A decades-old case could be considered “good” law—if it hasn’t been overruled or otherwise made irrelevant, an older case that fits with your case’s fact pattern and applicable law could be helpful.
Use a citator
How can you check if you’re using “good” law? Use a citator. Citators let you verify a case’s authority by giving you a cataloged list of cases, statutes, and legal sources—along with a history and precedential value for those sources—so you can then check that it hasn’t been overruled, questioned, or made irrelevant.
When using a citator, focus on the negative material (by checking a case in a citator, you can look for flags that indicate any negative history). Specifically, use a citator to check that you don’t miss a case that invalidates your argument—which could undermine your credibility.
Major legal databases all have their own citator tools. For example, Casetext offers SmartCite, which “uses a system of flags to indicate the treatment of cases.” Casetext can also “help you evaluate whether a case is good law and find other relevant cases citing that opinion.”
How can I improve my legal research skills?
Whether you’re new to legal research or you’ve conducted legal research for years, once you have a solid understanding of the process, take advantage of strategies and tools to maximize research efficiency. Here are three strategies to consider:
1. Conduct more efficient research remotely
In the past, the legal research process was arduous, partly because it tied the researcher to a physical location—whether that was a law library or a law office computer—to access legal databases.
Today, cloud-based legal research software lets you conduct research remotely when used with a legal practice management software like Clio Manage. Having the flexibility to research from anywhere streamlines the legal research process and enhances efficiency. Here are a few examples:
- By signing into a legal research service like Fastcase with Clio, for example, you can remotely access primary sources like cases and statutes, as well as secondary sources like law review articles. In addition, Fastcase further streamlines the legal research process in your workday by helping you track billable research time easily and save data back to matters.
- CourtTrax provides real-time access to State and Federal courts across the United States. With CourtTrax’s Clio integration, you can link your search results to specific client matters, and have the results injected directly into Clio as a document.
- Cloud-based research software like Tracers lets you search for pertinent information (such as contract information or social media activity) remotely. You can also request a Tracers search directly from a Clio Matter for an even more efficient process.
2. Double-check your memos and briefs with advanced legal research AI
Effective legal research needs to be thorough and accurate—which, traditionally, is time-consuming. To speed that process up without sacrificing the quality of your legal research, legal research artificial intelligence can help.
Here are a few tools to help streamline your legal research process:
- ROSS Intelligence is an AI-driven legal research platform with an automated review tool that allows you to do more thorough research in a fraction of the time. ROSS lets you highlight statements in your pleadings and briefs to instantly search for cases discussing similar points of law. You can also use ROSS to identify negative case treatment in your pleadings and briefs—without the manual searching.
- Casetext’s CARA artificial intelligence search technology and automated review tool enhance and speed up your legal searches. You can use Casetext to start your research with a complaint or brief from a matter in Clio to find highly relevant, tailored search results. Casetext will not just find authorities on the same facts and legal issues—it will also find them in the same jurisdiction. Casetext’s citator functionality also makes it easier to check and flag any bad law.
3. Document your research with secure, cloud-based fact management software
Don’t let your research go to waste or let facts slip through the cracks because of a poor documentation system. By using secure, cloud-based fact-management software, you can record your research in an efficient, organized, and accessible way.
Software like Clio Manage and apps like FactBox, for example, keep you organized by connecting all the facts, notes, and ideas in your cases. Using this type of tool helps you prepare for depositions, hearings, client briefings, and trials faster—and with more confidence that you aren’t missing facts.
Whether you’re a law student or experienced attorney, learning how to do thorough legal research (or how to enhance your existing legal research process) is a skill that can give you a competitive advantage. Learning great legal research techniques—from developing a more efficient research process to adopting cloud-based tools to conduct better, faster, and smarter legal research—helps you better support your cases, and clients. If you’d like even more tips on conducting smarter legal research, you’ll find this blog post useful.
We published this blog post in October 2020. Last updated: .
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