Updated: Jul 18, 2019
Don’t let legal research intimidate you – it can actually be a fun and interesting part of the job! If you’re feeling frazzled, follow these tips to keep you on track.
Outline Your Legal Issue(s)
You can’t know what needs to be researched until you review the case to determine the issues. As you are reviewing the file materials, keep a chronological record of the key parties and events. Determine what the conflict is (the factual issues) and clearly define the legal issue that needs to be researched.
Which Type of Legal Authority Do You Need?
To answer this question, you’ll need to determine the jurisdiction – does the case belong in federal court, state court or a local court? Once you know the jurisdiction, what type of law is involved? Is it a constitutional issue? Statutory? Or is case law going to be the leading authority? Usually a combination of statute research and case law will be your best bet.
Now you have clearly defined issues to research and you know which jurisdiction and the type of law. You’ve narrowed down the search field significantly!
Use Your Network
It’s possible that your particular legal issue has already been researched and briefed by another attorney or paralegal if you work in a larger firm. Check with your coworkers to see if they already have a form for the pleading you are drafting or perform a database search in your firm’s document management system. If you find a form, make sure to “Shepardize” (confirm that the case law cited in the pleading is current and has not been reversed on appeal).
No access to a firm pleadings database? Now is a great time to make use of your professional network. Contact other paralegals who work in the same field in your area or contact your local paralegal association.
Electronic Databases Are the Most Efficient
If your firm has a subscription to LexisNexis and/or WestLaw, make use of it! These databases were designed specifically for the research you are trying to accomplish. Remember to keep your searches within your jurisdiction – you don’t want to waste time sorting through cases from other states.
These databases are like the “Google” of legal research. You can type in any search term in the search box and find statutes, cases and even pleadings that match your search. Use quotation marks for a narrower search field or leave them off to cast a wider net. You can also search by citation so you can easily make sure the law is up to date.
But There Are Plenty of Free Resources
A simple internet search will turn up a usable resource. Google Scholar, for example, is a free tool where you can find articles, case law and more. Your state’s government site will have free access to the state statutes and even the legislative history, so you can see the intent of the legislator in the original language of the bill and follow it through to see how it was edited before it became law. The Library of Congress is another great resource.
Remember to bookmark the statutes that you refer to frequently in your pleadings (perhaps a certain statute that is paramount in your particular field of law). You’ll want to make sure that the language of the statute remains the same and isn’t amended or repealed by future legislative sessions.
Update the Law
The opposing side will jump on the chance to weaken your argument by showing that the case law you relied on is no longer an authority or by pointing out that the language in the statute you are referring to has been amended in the last legislative session. Don’t give them the satisfaction! Always check the authorities you are listing to make sure the statute or case is still good law.
If you don’t have access to an online database such as LexisNexis or WestLaw, use Shepherd’s Citations to check the status of the case law.
Draft As You Go
The best way to make use of your research is to draft the pleading as you go, making sure to correctly cite the law you are referring to. The best resource for legal citations is The Bluebook – it will give you guidance for citing nearly any conceivable resource. If you are drafting an appeal brief for a local or state court, check the court’s website for guidance on the citations. Many of them require legal citations in a specific format.