Conducting good legal research is something that not all paralegals, or lawyers, can do, and excellent research skills can be invaluable to a law practice. Even if your current position does not require you to perform research, it is a skill that you want on your resume, and one that you should be constantly looking to improve. To conduct good legal research, follow the steps below.
1. If you do not know much about the legal topic, learn it before beginning your research. This is the one of the most important steps in conducting good legal research. You cannot find the answer to a legal question, especially a very complex question, if you do not know anything about the broad legal topic under which it falls. To learn about the topic, you will use what are called ‘secondary sources’. You learned about these in school, if you have a paralegal degree, in your legal research class, but probably have never used them, as most researchers tend to skip this step. For example, if you were asked to find out if a client could terminate his alimony payments, when he had agreed to lifetime alimony in a Settlement Agreement, you might be tempted to simply go to Google or Westlaw and run a search. That is fine, if you know what alimony is, under what circumstances it might be ordered, how the amount is calculated, and how your Courts view alimony in general. If you do not know even one of these things, you would want to start with some secondary sources to learn something about it. Good secondary sources include:
a. Dictionaries and Encyclopedias. The Free Dictionary’s Legal Dictionary is an invaluable tool to a legal researcher. The dictionary-encyclopedia-in one provides definitions of legal terms as well as an encyclopedia style description, history, and background on the word, with examples, citations, and further readings.
b. Legal Treatises. If you do not have access to Lexis or Westlaw, you will have to visit a library to access Treatises. Treatises provide in-depth commentary and analysis of a certain legal topic. To locate Treatises, by subject, visit the Chicago Library’s Treatises page or the New York Law School Library’s Treatises by Topic page and choose a topic. If the Treatises is available on Lexis or Westlaw, you will see a code listed for it under the library location information. Instructions for using Legal Treatises are provided by the Oklahoma City University Law Library.
c. Restatements of the Law. Restatements of the Law are published by the American Law Institute and are meant to inform judges and lawyers on the general principles of common law. Like Legal Treatises, Restatements may be found online if you have access to Lexis or Westlaw. If you do not have access to Lexis or Westlaw, you may order Restatements from the American Law Institute at a fairly low cost.
d. Online Resources. Excellent secondary resources available online free of charge include Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute and Zimmerman’s Research Guide provided by LexisNexis.
2. Gather some basic information. Before you go search your state’s code or case law, do a couple of simple searches to gather some basic information about keywords and/or relevant statutes.
a. Run a basic internet search for your topic. Go to your favorite search engine and type in some keywords or phrases from your research topic or question. For example, if you are trying to determine if a Settlement Agreement entered into in Indiana can be modified as far as the spousal support your client agreed to pay, you may want to search “alimony in divorce settlement agreements” or “‘Indiana divorce’ and ‘alimony’”. Skim the first page or two of results, looking for keywords, statutes, citations, or anything else that can help you answer your question. A search of Yahoo for “alimony in divorce settlement agreements” returns results, which seem to indicate that alimony can be modified.
b. Narrow, broaden, or re-word your search terms and search again. Based on the results of your original search, come up a new search terms that may provide more relevant results. For instance, using the previous example, of “alimony in divorce settlement agreements” which returned results indicating that alimony in a settlement agreement can be modified, we can come up with the new search term, “when alimony cannot be modified”. Again, looks for references to statues, citations, or additional keywords that may be helpful.
3. Look for an applicable statute. Go to the annotated state or federal code and run a keyword search or browse for a statute that may apply. Annotated code contains references to cases that have interpreted the given statute. If you have access to Lexis or Westlaw, you should have access to both annotated and unannotated code, and want to make sure that you are using the annotated version. If you do not have access to the annotated code for your state, ask your attorney for a subscription service, or an annotated codebook. Freelance paralegals who find that subscription services are too expensive may consider taking a class at a college that offers students free access to Lexis, visiting the library for an annotated codebook, or purchasing an annotated codebook for the states whose laws they most frequently research.
4. Search for case law. You will begin this process differently, depending on whether you found an applicable statute, and whether that statute contained annotations or not.
a. If you found an applicable statute, with annotations, your case law research should start with any cases listed in the annotations of the statute.
b. If you found an applicable statute, but it did not have annotations, your case law research should start with a search of the statute’s citation, in order to find case law that mentions that statute.
c. If you did not find an applicable statute, your case law research should start with a keyword search. You may have to try a combination of keywords, search for occurrences of two different keywords close to one another (such as in the same paragraph or sentence), use legal topic designations to narrow your search, and/or run several different searches before you begin to get any relevant results.
5. Read the cases you find. Pull up each case you come across, and read it. It is very important that you take the time to actually read the case, and not just skim it. Not only should you be looking for an answer to your question, but also for any citations to another case or statute that may answer your question, get you closer to an answer, provide you with new information that may help you narrow your search, or possibly send you in a new direction. You may have to read several cases before you start finding any that come close to what you are looking for.
6. Run a new search. After reading several cases, and not finding an answer, go back and run a new search for different keywords, topics, or phrases, based on the information you have gathered reading cases from your first search. You may have to repeat this process several times before you begin turning up relevant cases that you can use.
7. Do it all again. Keep reading cases and following links, looking to further define your research topic or question, with new keywords or phrases until you have it narrowed down your search results to the point that you are finding some answers and/or going in circles, being directed to the same cases or one case over and over. You may even need to go back to step one and run a new internet search with new keywords or keyword phrases.
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