How to Do Legal Research: The Ultimate Overview
By The MyCase Team
Whether you’re brand new to practicing law or a seasoned pro, effective legal research is one of the cornerstones of being a successful lawyer. Throughout your career, legal research skills can help you stay abreast of evolving precedent.
However, it’s not just the law itself that’s changing but many of the methods for conducting legal research have transformed in the digital age. These days, crafting a perfect legal argument takes a winning combination of experience, intuition, and the ability to leverage technology.
To make sure you’re getting the most from your legal research, we’ve put together a guide that covers the basic steps of effective legal research and the latest tools and best practices at your disposal.
What is Legal Research?
Legal research is the process of finding relevant laws, case summaries, and other information to back up your legal arguments and decision making. In addition to preparing for a filing or trial, an attorney may do legal research to accurately answer a client’s questions and provide guidance.
Specific laws and decisions also are subject to change over time. So while doing research, legal experts must also make sure they’re using “good” law–in other words, that the decision or specific case they’re citing is still relevant.
Why is Effective Legal Research Important?
Without a solid foundation of quality legal research, it can be difficult to know if a given argument or precedent is valid or will work. Beyond that, using well-researched arguments backed by the most up-to-date citations will help you:
- Get a complete and accurate picture of the case at hand
- Achieve better outcomes for clients
- Develop smarter and more sophisticated case strategies
- Help you stay up to date on the law and legal trends in your practice area
Additionally, using legal analytics and other digital tools to supplement your research can also help you predict success rates, understand the costs and time of a given case, and work more efficiently overall.
How to Conduct Legal Research in 5 Steps
For many years, a lawyer’s best research tools were largely limited to libraries, books, and physical documents. Now, there is a plethora of available online tools and resources to help. However, even the most sophisticated tools aren’t worth much unless you already have a solid understanding of how to conduct legal research..
Regardless of what you use to research, there are several basic steps that go into effective legal research:
1. Gather the Facts
Before building an argument, you need to understand the exact nature of the issue you’re faced with. The initial fact-finding process helps you determine:
- The type of legal issue are you facing
- What is the jurisdiction?
- Is it a federal or state issue?
- A reasonable goal/desired outcome to expect
- The facts of the case: who, what, where, when, how
By answering these initial questions, you can then narrow your search to be more specific. Many legal experts use case management software to assist with tracking client and case information right from the intake stage. Software will also make it easier when locating or attaching relevant documents in the future as well.
2. Create a Research Plan
Using the facts you’ve already gathered, you’ll then determine what primary sources and case law will be most relevant to your case. Instead of diving straight into the research, it can be extremely helpful to develop a research plan first.
At this stage, it’s less important to know exactly what sources you’re looking for and more about creating a list of relevant legal terms and what filters you should apply (more on that later). You do this by analyzing the facts of the case, assessing what you still need to learn, and creating a list of potential search terms.
3. Gather Sources
Armed with a list of relevant terms and facts about your case, it’s time to get into law research. You’ll generally find two types of sources valuable.
Primary Sources: Primary legal sources are formal documents issued by a state or federal government that establish law such as:
- Court decisions
- Case law
Secondary Sources: Secondary sources provide summaries of legal matters and court decisions. Some examples of secondary sources include:
- Legal articles
- Practice guides
- Legal news
- Legal dictionaries
Ultimately, the most important citations you can provide will be primary legal sources—but often the fastest route to finding them is by mining secondary sources that point you in the right direction. It also lets you see what other legal experts have said about similar issues, giving you further insights into what direction your strategy and research should take.
While physically going to the library and cracking the books still has its place, technology has made the initial research stages much easier. There are a number of free and paid online resources, like Google Scholar, available for lawyers — which you use depends on your budget, how big your firm is, and what kind of advanced features you’re looking for.
Search tools that incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) let you use natural language or informal search terms to find relevant documents, significantly accelerating the research process. AI can also be used to provide succinct summaries of lengthy documents like cases, laws, deposition transcripts, and more.
4. Ensure That You’re Using “Good” Law
As we touched on briefly before, it’s vital to make sure you’re using “good” law. What is “good” law? Basically, it’s making sure a legal decision, case, or other source you’re using is in good standing with the courts and still relevant. A perfect example from a ruling might seem great at first until you find out the decision was overturned at a later date, appealed, or made obsolete by a new law.
A good rule of thumb is to try and find recent cases as they are more likely to still be relevant. Of course, that doesn’t mean old cases should be avoided outright.
Using a citator—a legal tool that cross references your document with other citations—is vital to ensuring the document you’re using doesn’t have any negative history. Many newer citators will also provide a summary of the findings and point you towards similar cases.
In addition to looking only for negative history (like decisions that were overturned), it’s also important to note differentiators or unique factors that contributed to one outcome or another. This is another area where legal analytics and AI can shine, helping you understand meaningful patterns in case law.
5. Check Your Work
The legal research process can get intense, and sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the details. Before finalizing, it’s a good idea to summarize your findings to show how your full body of research supports your desired conclusion. This is also called a legal memorandum, and while it might seem redundant, a legal memo can be useful for:
- Fostering internal collaboration within your law firm
- Communicating strategy with your clients
- Documenting your legal processes and findings
Tips to Improve Your Legal Research Skills
With a solid foundation of basic legal research skills you can take advantage of the latest best practices and tools to make your law research process even more efficient. When determining how to improve your legal research skills, here are some important starting points.
Use Legal Technology
Effectively representing your clients and drafting winning arguments comes from utilizing every tool at your disposal. Specialized legal software comes with a number of built-in capabilities that streamline legal research and ensure it’s more effective. Supplementing this with the capabilities of leading case management software can help further with things like:
- Custom Workflows: Workflows can be set up based on the type of case to automate tasks, create deadlines, pull specific documents, and more.
- Case Analytics: Analytics tools provide a 360-degree view of every case that leads to actionable insights. Analytics tools not only help during the research process, but can also be used to better understand your own case history and workflows in order to find areas for improvement or gaps.
- Time Tracking and Scheduling: Case management can make it easier to track the time you spend on research and other tasks. Not only does this make tracking billable hours easier, it allows you to stay on top of important deadlines which is vital when handling multiple cases at once.
- Document Management: Keep all relevant case files in one place with comprehensive document management tools. Software like MyCase ensures all of your documents are organized, accessible, and secure—bolstering collaboration and helping to establish a single source of truth.
Leverage AI to Check Your Work
The topic of AI has exploded within the last year and generated a lot of excitement. When you look at its capabilities within the legal field, it’s easy to understand why. There are already several tools out there that help speed up research without losing quality or accuracy.
AI tools can help check your work by summarizing your sources, pointing you towards others, and checking for anything you’ve missed. While many traditional online searches get stuck when you fail to use the exact right wording, AI helps get around this by generating tailored search results based on plain language.
Boost Your Legal Research Efficiency With Best-In-Class Technology
Learning how to conduct legal research effectively is crucial for the long term success of any lawyer. Having a solid research process not only helps lawyers achieve better outcomes for their clients, but allows them to use their time more efficiently.
Leading law firms across the country rely on MyCase to help centralize their documentation, client communication, calendaring, and more. Features like full text search, which allows you to instantly search for terms within your digital files, are also crucial for finding relevant documents quickly.
By leveraging a best-in-class case management platform to support their research processes and workflows, law firms can boost efficiency and collaboration like never before.