Despite the fact that legal research can be time-consuming and tedious, it is often vital for a lawyer’s success. Using the right statute or case can be the difference between winning or losing your case, or between a large settlement and a small one.
A good foundation of research techniques can never be replaced by any tools or services that make legal research easier than ever. We’ve created a list of tips to make your legal research smarter and faster.
Use Guides and Libraries First
One easy place to start your legal research review process is with a guide or library. These tools provide a brief description of terms, acronyms, concepts, and court holdings related to your search topic. You can find guides and libraries by searching for “index” or “guide” plus the name of the jurisdiction where the law applies (i.e., New York State Law Guide).
Take Advantage of KeyCite and Shepard’s
KeyCite is an online service that summarizes important case law related to the topic of your legal research, while Shepard’s provides a brief overview of cases you’ve already found that are cited in the source you’re viewing. Both databases allow you to see how courts have interpreted laws in various jurisdictions throughout the country, so be sure to use them when performing research on state or federal laws. Shepard’s here.
Review Secondary Sources for Additional Context
There are many secondary sources you can use to gain additional context about topics like statutes, regulations, or court decisions (i.e., legal encyclopedias, treatises, and practice guides). By searching these resources along with your primary sources, you’ll become more familiar with the law and its applications.
Use Key Word Searches
When looking for cases on a particular topic, it’s best to use keyword searches (i.e., search terms that capture all of the terms related to your topic). Try searching “established by the department” along with your search term, which will lead you to cases where government agencies are referenced in opinions related to your subject.
Look at News Stories Related to Your Search Topic
News stories might not contain legal citations or concrete information about a subject, but they can offer insight into public perception of proposed legislation or regulations while providing an easy way to stay on top of developments in your area of practice.
Keep your Attention on the Matter
If your question is not directly related to a treatise, law review article, primer, or annotation, you don’t need to read them all. To win your case, you need to locate the case, statute, or regulation that governs your issue.
From most of the major legal research companies, there is a lot of information available. We can easily get sidetracked or confused with all the information available. Those vast oceans of information contain the answers you need to assist your client, so be mindful of staying focused on the issue and disregarding the flood of unrelated material.
Find Out Who Else Is Interested in Your Search Topic
If you want to know who else might be interested in a particular search topic, the USPTO provides an easy-to-use tool called “Who’s Using PATENTSCOPE?” This tool allows you to browse the full text of search results for patents related to any topic. When searching patent literature, be sure to use representative keyword searches, as many narrow patents come up when using broad search terms. The USPTO also provides a list of non-patent secondary sources that are indexed by patent number and an advanced patent search option.
Look up Synonyms
Do not forget that search engine results will only be based on your search terms. In addition to robbery, you may also be interested in cases of theft, thieves, theft, burglars, etc., but the search engine does not know that since it is only looking for robbery.
You can use synonyms as an aid when you don’t know where to start on a subject or when you’re stuck. Furthermore, do not make the mistake of assuming that you know what a judge or legislator will say. There is no way of knowing when a similar word will be in the case where you will need one, so use all of them to search!
Get Help from a Librarian
Law libraries are open to the public and generally have free access to legal databases like LexisNexis or Westlaw. Many librarians regularly speak at CLE programs about legal research methods, so it’s worth attending one of these sessions if you want more detailed information about how best to use particular databases. For help understanding how online resources work or finding what you’re looking for, librarians can be a good resource via chat or email.
Knowing When you’re Done is Key
When to walk away from legal research is one of the most challenging aspects of it. Your research is likely to result in more documents than you can possibly read in a reasonable amount of time, so how far down the list should you go? What is your limit for reading?
Sometimes, the answer to a complex question requires detailed research. How do you know when the next case on the list isn’t worth your time? You should look for the most current, relevant, and important cases and statutes depending on your subject.
This is a good sign that you should stop your search if these three things are true:
- The same cases and statutes keep appearing in your searches, even when you use different sources.
- Legal principles can be expressed and explained clearly by you.
- The law you’ve discovered and interpreted is not favorable to you.
Again, tools are available to assist. The relevance of your terms is measured by how frequently they appear in research services. If your relevance score drops to a low level, you’ll probably be looking at irrelevant documents.
In a good platform, you can sort documents according to how often they are cited. The most important law can be found in cases and statutes that no one has cited. It’s also a good idea to sort by the date—that way, you’ll see anything new that you should know about!
Legal research is a skill that is constantly evolving due to the influx of new laws and cases. Fortunately, there are many ways you can approach legal research thanks to its versatility. The strategies above will help you get results quickly while staying on top of the latest developments in your field of practice.