Legal Research Tips for Law Students: The Basics

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By JohnBarnes

Although many law students are concerned about how to write in IRAC format, it is only half of the battle. Your memo or brief will not be deemed credible if it lacks sound research. Students can get frustrated when they overthink legal research. This article will discuss seven effective legal research strategies that can make the process of writing legal documents easier.

1. Identify the memo’s issue

Too often, students will read the facts of a client’s case, then immediately search LexisNexis or Westlaw blindly, trying to find all possible phrases. Instead, law students should take a deep breath in order to ask the question: “What is this client trying to accomplish with this lawsuit?”

Once you have identified the cause of action, then you can ask the question: “What legal criteria could either help or harm my client?” These questions will give the legal issue. These terms will help you formulate your search phrase.

2. Limit your jurisdiction

Students often make the mistake of looking too far when they first begin legal research. Students often seek out other states in an effort to find the applicable law. However, cases from other states are persuasive authority and not mandatory. Persuasive authority is of little value, so you should remove it from your memos, unless your supervising attorney or law professor states otherwise.

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Only Supreme Court decisions or those from the relevant state have mandatory authority. Federal cases from the same circuit are also possible. However, these can be more difficult to apply so make sure to check with your law professor or TA to ensure they were properly applied.

3. Boolean search terms are recommended

Although it might seem absurd, many students will enter the entire issue statement in the search box. However, LexisNexis and Westlaw are more similar to Google and other search engines than most people realize. Understanding Boolean search terms can help you save time and produce more useful results.

Consider the following example:

Your issue could read, “Under Maryland law can a property owner become negligent if a wild dog bites a guest on his land?”

Your search phrase might include “property owner”, “negligent” or “wild animal”.

This search phrase will target all three critical aspects of the issue. You can remove the quotation marks and one term if your results are too narrow.

While you won’t be able to master all the Boolean search terms in a day, it is possible to save time by learning them early on in your career.

4. Understanding that you don’t always get the outcome you desire in a case that is helpful

Students often avoid the proper case law when the client doesn’t want it. If you are the defense lawyer, why would you refer to a case in which the defendant was found guilty? An attorney’s ability distinguish cases and to present a solid argument is the key. You can make the best case by showing your client is not like the plaintiff or the defendant in the relevant case law.

You can navigate the comparison by using the analysis section in your brief or memo. Your sentences might read, for example:

You can show how fact patterns differ and how the court should rule in your favor. However, it is important to ensure that the laws are correctly aligned. If your case involves workers’ compensation, you shouldn’t compare a case that maps the law on medical negligence.

5. Use the case you found to help others

This tip could easily be the subject of an entire article. This tip is perhaps the most useful and overlooked tool for legal research. It’s a great way to save time and make a big difference in your legal research.

LexisNexis uses “Shepardize”, while Westlaw has “KeyCite”. Both do the same thing. This tool will allow you to view other cases that have cited your case. You can peruse the cases that consider your case “good law”, and perhaps use them as additional information. If you are able to distinguish the cases and avoid negative treatment, even cases with negative outcomes can still be useful.

The cases that are listed as authoritative in Westlaw and LexisNexis can be accessed by clicking the hyperlinks. It is a good idea to scan the hyperlinked cases. If the case has authority for the case you are interested in, it could be relevant for your client’s case.

Finally, you will find headnotes in cases on LexisNexis or WestLaw that highlight key legal points. You can view similar cases in both programs. A case that uses the same headnote can be worth reading if one is correct.

6. Take into account the date but don’t obsess about it

A more recent case is preferred, as a rule. The legal and social changes that may affect case law often influence the cases of the younger ones. Don’t panic if you find a case that matches both your facts and the applicable law, but it is more than 30 years old. This could be your best case, as your client’s legal problem hasn’t been addressed in recent years. Double-check the older case for any negative treatment to ensure it is still legal. If there are no red flags, the case can be used.

7. When to stop

Supervising lawyers and law professors want you to be thorough in your legal research. You won’t get any favors by entering 3 searches in the search box, then giving up. It is also a mistake to spend 4 hours researching a case that is not common.

Legal research is not a search for gold. You won’t always find what you need. If you feel like you don’t have the time or desire to look further, it’s likely that you won’t be able to. Use what you have found to make the best IRAC possible.