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Legal Research: An Overview: Introduction

Legal Research: Getting Started

Good research begins with knowing what it is you are researching.  New attorneys often overlook the importance of their initial communications with those assigning them projects.  In their zeal to impress their employers and to appear informed, new attorneys may draw their own assumptions about the objectives for the research, neglect to ask clarifying questions, or may even appear disinterested in the assignment.  Good communication skills are vital to insuring that you have a solid understanding of your assignments and that those giving you assignments know they can count on you.  Keep these tips in mind when you get new assignments:

  • Clarify the nature and scope of the project.  For assignments given to you via e-mail, read the e-mail thoroughly, and for assignments given to you during a meeting, listen carefully and take detailed notes.  When you receive an assignment, ask questions to clarify the scope of the project and anything that is confusing.  Your questions should include asking for recommendations for key sources to consult; clarifying the format that your work product should take (i.e. research memorandum, hard copies of relevant material, draft insert for document, etc.); and confirming the deadline for completion of the assignment.

  • Reiterate your understanding of the project. After you have been given an assignment, send a follow up e-mail confirming your understanding of the assignment, including the key issue(s) to be researched, the format your work product will take, and the deadline.  This provides a good roadmap for you of the project and also gives your supervisor the opportunity to clarify any additional details.

  • Maintain good communication throughout the process.  As you work on the project, check in regularly to let your supervisor know of your progress, to confirm that you are on the right-track, and to get additional guidance.  If you are unsure about the extent of communication your supervisor desires, consult with other attorneys who have successfully worked with your supervisor. 

  • Timely respond to e-mails.  It is important to timely acknowledge e-mails that your receive, even if you cannot get to the substance of the e-mail right away.  For example, if you are sent an e-mail asking for a bit of research, respond to the e-mail at your earliest opportunity to let the sender know that you received their e-mail and advise the sender of when they can expect to receive at least some preliminary work on the project.

  • Project confidence.  As a new attorney, it is natural to feel overwhelmed and unsure of your abilities when given a new assignment.  Do not let these feelings compromise your professionalism when communicating with your supervisor. Show enthusiasm for the project and ask appropriate questions about deadlines and suggestions for getting started.  Should you feel confused or overwhelmed as you work on a project, identify what it is you need guidance on, such as help prioritizing research items or confirmation that you are researching in the right places, and go to your supervisor with specific questions.

Your research strategy will vary depending on your legal issue and the nature of your project.  While there is no one path that works for every research question, these steps are a useful starting point:

  • Determine the relevant jurisdiction. Before you begin your research, you need to determine which law is controlling for your issue.  Is the issue governed by state or federal law?  For state law questions, what state(s) law is at issue?  For federal law questions, what are the relevant Circuit and District courts?

  • Identify the legal issue and determine keywords to describe the issue.  It is common for those new to legal research to go directly to a search engine and start typing away, hoping to find an answer quickly.  Taking some time to step back from the search engine and think through the issue to be researched will save you time in the long run, as it will make your searching more efficient and effective.  Identify what area(s) of the law are implicated by your issue, what is the question to be researched, what topics are implicated by that question, are there sub-issues that should be considered?  You may find it helpful to write out the question(s) that you are researching.  Also, think through keywords that describe your issue that would be useful for generating good searches.  For those keywords, think through synonyms that may be used in lieu of those words.

  • Begin your research by consulting a secondary source. Secondary sources offer guidance on legal topics and questions.  They are a critical resource to help you get a "lay-of-the-land" regarding your issue and will identify statutes and leading cases to jump start your research.

  • Locate relevant statutes. If there is an on-point statute for your issue, look up that statute in an annotated code.  Take note not just of the language of the specific statute but also review the rest of the "chapter" in which the statute appears to identify other related and relevant statutes.  For each relevant statute, review the annotations for citations to cases and secondary sources.

  • Find relevant cases.  If you have identified relevant cases by looking at secondary sources and/or annotated codes, review those cases. Use the on-point headnotes of each case to search for other relevant cases in your jurisdiction, and use the citator (Shepards in Lexis, Key Cite in Westlaw, and BCite in Bloomberg) to identify cases that have cited to your cases.  Also, do additional keyword type searches to find other relevant cases.

  • Confirm that your authority is still good law. Use a citator (Shepards in Lexis, Key Cite in Westlaw, or BCite in Bloomberg) to confirm that your cases and statutes are still good law.

One of the trickiest research tasks is knowing when your research is completed.  Legal analysis is nuanced, and thorough research involves looking at a number of sources and types of materials.  Finding one on-point authority does not mean your research is complete.  However, it also is simply not possible to run every conceivable search in every conceivable resource and review every conceivable search result.  Good legal researchers find the sweet-spot between one-and-done and scorched-earth type research.

The following may signal that you have found a good spot to conclude your research:

  • Your searches keep turning up the same set of relevant authorities.  If you are no longer finding relevant new sources, you have probably found the bulk of what is available.

  • You have searched in a variety of available sources (i.e. secondary sources, cases, etc.) and resources (Westlaw/Lexis/Bloomberg, government websites, other available resources).

  • You have searched using a variety of keywords.

  • You have searched using a variety of methods (using secondary sources to find primary authority, keyword searching, mining headnotes to explore Topics/Key Numbers, reviewing citing references, etc.).

  • For your most relevant search results -- you have reviewed both the sources they cite and sources that cite to those materials.

Other Useful UCLA Legal Research Resources

Law Library Home Page. The Law Library home page provides access to a wide array of research resources and information.

Law Library Research Guides. The Law Library has prepared more than 60 research guides to assist UCLA Law students with their research needs. Guides of particular interest for law students include: Guide for First Year Law Students; Law School Study Aids; Mobile Applications for Law Students and Lawyers; and Career Planning, Job Search and More for for Law Students.

How to Access UCLA Databases. This guide provides instructions for UCLA Law students on how to access UC, UCLA and UCLA Law licensed databases remotely.

Law Library Digital Collection. The Digital Collection page provides links to commonly used legal databases.

UCLA Library Catalog. Use the Catalog to search for books and other library materials available at UCLA.

UCLA E-Resources.  The UCLA Library system provides access to non-legal databases and other research resources available at UCLA.

Melvyl Catalog. Melvyl provides a single interface from which users may search the records of all UC libraries, WorldCat, UC books digitized by Google, and selected online databases.