Published on October 12, 2020 by Leigh A. Jones, Evening/Weekend Reference Librarian
Before beginning a legal research project, it is always important to have a plan. Having a plan is important because it forces the researcher to think about the needed information before beginning the work. By giving some thought to what is needed, the researcher becomes more effective and efficient in their search. This efficiency saves time and money, two important things when it comes to legal research.
A research plan is never static; it can change according to what is already known and what is learned in the process of the search. Keeping that in mind, here are six guiding steps that can serve as the foundation of any legal research project:
- Analyze the facts and the problem(s) that have been presented.
Determine the legal issues that are relevant to the facts. Ask: Who? What? When? Where? How? Use these questions to understand which facts are significant to the research that should be done.
- Generate a list of research terms.
Develop a list of terms (keywords) that can be used to locate information that is relevant to your search. Consider alternate terms and alternate spellings. (Legal dictionaries and thesauri help.)
- Gain a foundational understanding of the issues and terms that you have identified.
Use secondary sources for this. These are useful because they explain legal principles. Also, they can be used to locate primary law. Examples of secondary sources include legal encyclopedias, treatises, law reviews, and more.
- Locate the relevant law.
After gaining an understanding of the issues involved, find cases, statutes, and other rulings that apply. Utilize secondary sources and other tools to reach this information.
- Make sure the law that you find is good law.
Always remember to make the distinction between binding authority and persuasive authority. Use citators to make sure that you have found the most current information.
- Recognize when it is time to stop your search.
Have you provided the information that is being requested? With different searches, are you reaching the same conclusions?
While executing your research plan, always remember to remain open to the idea that unexpected information might be found. Also, remember to document research by using a research log. This is important because it allows the researcher to easily return to information that has been discovered during the search.
The following resources, found in the firstname.lastname@example.org library’s West Academic Study Aids collection, provide additional information about developing research plans:
If you have any questions about developing your research plan, please contact the reference librarians at the Lucille Stewart Beeson Law Library: