Legal Research Tips Law Students Need to Know: The Basics

Must-know legal research tips

Seven tips on how to make legal research easier and more effective

Learn about the specific problems law students tend to face when it comes to legal research, and discover a few tips and tricks on how to overcome them.

Though many law students stress about writing in the proper IRAC format, composing the text is only half the battle. Without sound research, your memo or brief won’t carry any weight. Students often overthink their legal research, and that can lead to frustration and insufficient statutory and case law. This article identifies seven of the most efficient legal research strategies to make your legal writing process less arduous.

1. Identify the issue of your memo

All too often, students read the fact pattern of their client’s case and immediately start blindly searching Westlaw or LexisNexis, typing in all phrases that come to mind. Instead, law students need to take a deep breath and ask: “What is the client trying to achieve with this lawsuit?”

By identifying the cause of action, you can then ask: “What are the legal criteria that either help or hurt my client?” The answers to those two questions will formulate the legal issue. With those terms in mind, you can then use that phrasing to formulate the search phrase.

2. Narrow your jurisdiction

When students first start conducting legal research, they mistakenly cast too wide a net when it comes to jurisdiction. Desperate to find applicable law, students often look to states other than the appropriate jurisdiction to find relevant case law. Cases from other states, however, are persuasive authority, not mandatory. Persuasive authority holds little weight, so it should be scrapped from your memos unless your law professor or supervising attorney states otherwise.

The only cases that hold mandatory authority are Supreme Court decisions and those from the appropriate state. Federal cases from the corresponding circuit are also possible, but as those can be a bit trickier to apply, check with your law professor, TA or supervising attorney to make sure they were applied properly.

3. Use Boolean search terms

Though it may seem silly, many students will write the full issue statement into the search box. Westlaw and LexisNexis, however, actually run more like Google and typical search engines than people realize. With that in mind, mastering Boolean search terms will help you save time and yield more fruitful results.

For example, consider the following:

  1. If your issue reads, “Under Maryland law, can a property owner be considered negligent if a wild animal bites a guest on his property?”
  2. Then, your search phrase could state: “property owner” and “negligent” and “wild animal”

In this one search phrase, you target all 3 critical aspects of the issue. If your results become too limited, then you can eliminate either the quotation marks or one of the terms.

You certainly won’t become an expert in Boolean search terms overnight, but by practicing them now you can save a lot of time throughout your career.

4. Understand that helpful cases don’t have to have the legal outcome you want

Many times students avoid using the appropriate case law because the outcome wasn’t what the client wants. For example, why refer to a case where the defendant was found guilty if you are the defense attorney? The answer lies in an attorney’s ability to distinguish cases and maintain a sound argument. Your best case may be made by showing that your client is NOT like the plaintiff or defendant of the relevant case law.

The analysis section of your memo or brief allows you to navigate the comparison. For instance, your sentences may read something like:

  • “Unlike the Smith case, our client… .”
  • “While the Smith plaintiff had_______, our case is an example of_____.”
  • “Though the defendant in Smith _________, we ask the court _______.”

By showing how the fact patterns are different, you can demonstrate how the court needs to find a different verdict toward your client. The caveat, however, is to make sure the laws are properly aligned. For example, don’t compare a case that maps out the law on medical malpractice when your case pertains to workers’ compensation.

5. If you find a helpful case, use that to find other cases

An entire article could be written on this tip. It’s perhaps the most helpful and often overlooked legal research tactic. Both Westlaw and LexisNexis offer legal research shortcuts that make a huge difference:

  • Westlaw has “KeyCite,” while LexisNexis has “Shepardize” — though both do the same task. This tool allows you to see other cases that cited your case. The cases that include your case as “good law” are definitely options for you to peruse and possibly use as additional information. Even the cases that have negative treatment to the case you have in mind can still be used if you master the art of distinguishing the cases, as discussed above.
  • When you’re reading a case in Westlaw or LexisNexis, the cases listed as authority are hyperlinked. Skimming the hyperlinked case is typically good idea because if that case had authority for the one you consider a match, it may hold weight for your client’s case as well.
  • Lastly, when you first look at a case on WestLaw or LexisNexis, there are headnotes that provide key legal points within the case. Both programs allow you to view other cases that make use of the same headnote. If one headnote is on point, then a case with that same headnote is also worth a read.

6. Consider the date, but don’t obsess over it

As a rule of thumb, a more recent case is generally preferred. Newer cases often reflect the legal and societal changes that could affect the case law. Nevertheless, if you find a case that matches your fact pattern and applicable law but it’s 30 years old, don’t panic. That may be your best case because your client’s legal issue hasn’t appeared in recent years. Double-check to see the negative treatment of the older case to make sure it’s still good law. If there aren’t any red flags, that case is probably fine to use.

7. Know when to stop

Law professors and supervising attorneys want you to do your “due diligence” when it comes to legal research. Typing in 3 different searches into the search box and then giving up won’t win you any favors. By the same token, spending 4 hours researching a fairly typical case is also a big mistake.

You can’t view legal research as a hunt for a pot of gold. In many instances, you simply won’t find the exact case law or statute you’re looking for. When you feel as though you can’t possibly look any more, you probably can’t. Make use of what you found and write the best IRAC you can.

If possible, ask for another set of eyes. If it’s for a law school assignment, ask your TA or mentor to take a look to see if you might have missed something. If this is an internship assignment, ask your supervising attorney if you think you’ve done enough. Though you may feel like a failure if you haven’t found the case that will land your client a victory, know that plenty of lawyers often struggle to find the right law, too.

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