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Legal Research 101: Mastering the Tools of the Trade

Legal research.

Legal Research 101: Mastering the Tools of the Trade

The legal field is one of the most complex fields you can get into. Even the most seasoned lawyers, who have spent decades practicing law, bump into strange situations they don’t know how to handle regularly. It just comes with the job due to all the unique things that can happen in the world and the way the court has to deal with those things.

As such, everyone involved in law, from legal teams to the people defending themselves or making a claim, has to learn how to perform legal research effectively.

Today, we’re going to help you do just that. Let’s get started.


What is Legal Research?


Legal research is just like any other kind of research. You have something you need to figure out, and you take a deep dive into the available information, both obvious and obscure, to resolve your problem and answer your questions.

Except, it’s a little different in the legal field.

Instead of trying to learn a historical fact or how to do something, legal research revolves around finding laws that back up your argument in a court case.


What Do You Look for in Legal Research?


When you perform legal research, you’ll typically be looking for statutes, laws, regulations, and previously published opinions of the court in cases similar to the one you’re handling.


Why is Legal Research Necessary?


Legal arguments aren’t simple things to form. It’s not as easy as both sides giving their opinion on what happened and then the judge makes a decision. Arguments have to be carefully crafted, and everything has to be based on a standard to ensure fairness and order.

Legal research helps you find previous cases of court opinion, laws you might not be aware of, and regulations that all support your argument and help convince the court that you’re the one in the right by legal standards.

This can be crucial. If you’ve ever watched one of those dramatic, shady, court TV shows, and seen two people who are both clearly problematic, but one gets rewarded what they’re asking for even if their side seems a bit wrong by normal standards, it’s typically because of laws and regulations that say they’re in the right.

The average courtroom isn’t a circus like that, but the general concept is the same. In close situations where there isn’t a clear “good guy” and “bad guy”, having an argument built on facts and judicial history will often make the difference. Not to mention, it’s the most appropriate way to approach the court process.


Who Performs Legal Research? Whose Responsibility is it?


Anytime you’re involved in a court case, you will likely benefit from being as involved as possible. Part of that includes legal research to ensure you’re looking for ways to build an effective argument. Even the client in a court case benefits greatly from legal research, because if you’re in that position, you get a better understanding of your case and what your lawyer is attempting to do. You might even be able to bring things up and remind them of things they might not have considered.

However, it’s primarily something that a legal team does. After all, they’re the ones typically tasked with building the argument and handling the technical aspects out of reach of the average client.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to be involved in your case if you’re a client facing a legal issue. Just defer to the legal team’s experience and authority on the matter.

If you’re a lawyer, you probably know this already.

Mastering the legal research tools.

How to Conduct Legal Research Effectively


Simply Googling laws relevant to your case would be classified as “legal research”, but that’s not something that is going to win a case or show your expertise on the matter when it’s time for you to present your argument to the court.

You have to be able to research effectively to ensure that you create compelling arguments regardless of the case you find yourself in.

For that, there are a few key points you need to consider any time you need to do legal research.


1: Ask the Right Questions


This is relevant for any type of research. You can spend countless hours looking things up and diving through information, but if you’re not asking the right questions, you’ll never get the answers you’re looking for. Even if you do, you’ll have wasted a ton of time doing so, and you could have gotten the answers in a fraction of the time you wasted.

Part of this is simply knowing what you’re looking for. If you look for every case revolving around medical malpractice, you’ll spend weeks or even months researching and never find the information you’re looking for. However, let’s say you’re representing a client who suffered severe injuries after a doctor left a foreign object in them or something similar. If you search for medical malpractice cases dealing specifically with that, you’ll narrow your search down dramatically.

Another key part of this is knowing what you’re trying to do. We mentioned helping a client pursue justice in that case, but what if you’re defending the doctor? You need resources that support your defense case.

Identify your exact legal issue, and revolve your search around that issue specifically. As you go, make sure to note all the facts you gather so you can use them to formulate your argument, refer back to, etc.


2: Start with Secondary Law


Secondary law resources are second-hand knowledge. Someone else has already put in the time and effort to research everything from scratch. This might come in the form of legal journals,  analysis of case studies, or other sources that are trying to talk about a broad subject.

Those are not the sources you’ll use to form your argument or learn about the case. Instead, they provide a vital resource that will cut your research time dramatically. Secondary law sources cite their sources. Those cited sources are “primary law”.

Primary law consists of the laws, statutes, and regulations you’re looking for to reference in your argument. These are the official records that are acceptable when you go to present an argument, and as such, they’re what you need.

Find secondary law sources, follow their citations to relevant primary sources, and you’ve done most of the legwork already. The rest consists of analyzing it and compiling it before turning it into an argument.

However, it can be helpful if you go a step further and look at the headnotes and keynotes that accompany primary law. These are quick reference guides that point you toward supporting relevant laws that might also help your case.

You’re on a time limit when you’re in a legal case, and legal research takes a considerable amount of time to do properly. So, major time savers that allow you to do your job properly while still saving time are always welcome.

If secondary law isn’t available, you’re going to have a little bit of a harder time.


3: Use Updated Information


Legal precedents, statutes, regulations, and court opinions are not static. As society progresses and things change, so does the legal system.

Unfortunately, official records of outdated laws are still around.

The resource you’re looking at as the perfect focal point of your argument might be a case from 1925 that was overruled shortly after. You don’t know unless you verify it. If you do build your case around that bad information, you’ll end up with an argument that falls apart quickly in the courtroom.

This is why “good law” is required. Good law refers to laws and other resources that are still valid. They haven’t been overturned, court opinion hasn’t changed, and there haven’t been tons of cases that counter their results. When you present arguments based on good law to the court, it’s much less likely that your argument will fall apart and cause you to lose the case.

There’s a popular tool in the legal field that is designed to help with this specific problem. It’s called KeyCite. KeyCite can take a citation, analyze the law, and make sure that it still holds up in today’s legal field. It’s fast, easy, and helps ensure you’re not using outdated information to build your case.


Other Situations When Legal Research is Required


Legal research is most important when it’s being used to build an argument for the court. After all, anything from someone’s compensation for an injury, to their life itself, can be on the line when court is in session. So, we’ve focused mostly on that aspect of legal research so far.

However, legal research isn’t always conducted for that purpose. It can be used for other reasons.

First, law students conduct a lot of legal research as part of their training. After all, if they’re interacting with the court and performing legal research professionally, they need to practice extensively in situations where it doesn’t count. For the most part, law students will perform legal research to write up memos, briefings, and papers that are all part of their training and have no consequences outside of their grades.

Then, legal research can be performed by lawyers for reasons other than building arguments. Sometimes, a lawyer’s client approaches them for legal advice. They haven’t hired them to represent them yet, but they need help determining what they should do. Usually, this is because a client is facing a charge or claim, or they’re considering taking legal action themselves, and they want to know how likely it is they’ll win and what they should do. Since court costs are fairly high, this is a common way to determine if it’s even financially plausible to start taking legal action or to fight something.

Legal research can also be done to keep a lawyer’s skills and knowledge of their field sharp. Since laws change so frequently, and a lawyer needs to stay on top of the laws that affect the types of clients they work with, they might perform some legal research without being prompted to ensure they know if any of the staples they rely on have become outdated or new resources have become available that might make for stronger arguments.


Is Legal Research Hard?


Legal research certainly isn’t a walk in the park. While we shared one shortcut that can help you find the information you’re looking for faster, it’s still a lengthy process.

There’s so much riding on legal research, and the text itself typically isn’t written in plain language, every single word needs to be analyzed, and in general, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that a specific resource will match your case well enough to support it strongly.

Then, there’s the problem with the law changing all the time. Law isn’t static, and while many big case laws stay relevant for decades, just as many can change in a matter of a week. It’s almost impossible to keep up with everything, and that means every case requires fresh research even if it’s practically identical to something you’ve handled before.

Finally, there’s just too much to research. This is just an arbitrary number, but let’s say you want 20 resources to build a strong argument. You’ll dig through volumes and volumes of case law before you find the 20 resources you need to succeed. It’s extremely time-consuming even if you follow citations from secondary law.


Getting Help with Legal Research Guidance and Other Litigation Necessities


If you’re handling litigation, and you’re getting ready to take on substantial legal research, need to find expert witnesses, or otherwise need professional consultation to help guide you and speed up the process, Litigation Legal Insight is here to help.

We specialize in helping professionals just like you to find the information and resources you need to win your case and minimize hassles. Contact Litigation Legal Insight today.