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Research Help: Research Techniques

Visit us in person or schedule an appointment. Read on for basic research guidance.

Basic Research Steps

  1. Plan and think! Know the question you are researching. Keep track of how you research and what you find to ensure you don't repeat yourself.

  2. Use secondary sources! Remember non-legal sources and legislative history-type information! This can include working papers, newspapers, committee reports, etc. They frequently reference primary sources and may even reproduce the cases/treaties you are looking for. It is important to start with secondary legal sources in order to find primary authority, the authoritative law source. Secondary sources are used to evaluate findings, analyze, and draw conclusions. The Internet is an important source and should be used carefully. The best web sites have authoritative information, are consistent, and are constantly updated. If you are unsure about the authenticity of a website, check with a reference librarian or just don't use it. 

  3. Find primary sources! Do you need an authentic or official version? Do you prefer print or electronic? Use a citator to ensure your law is still valid.

  4. Know when to stop! Have you answered the question? Are you finding the same/similar information over and over again?

  5. Asking/looking for help! The librarians are really, really here for you. We can help you find what you’re looking for, and it is our job to do so. If you still don’t want to talk to a person, then search for other research guides. Remember, you do not need to reinvent the wheel – most research has been done in some manner before and others have already put the work in. 

Research Logs and Plans

Research logs and plans are often used in Advanced Legal Research courses. Logs keep track of every research step, and plans keep research on-track while providing guidance. As you become more familiar with areas of the law and more comfortable as an attorney, you probably won't need to keep track of your research in this way. But until you reach that point, it's a good idea to keep yourself organized and track your work in this way. If you fail to find what you need the first time, you can ensure you don't repeat the same mistakes. You can also account to an associate or supervisor for the work you have done. How you plan and track your work depends on what works best for you, but here are some suggestions.

Research Plan Suggestions

  • Factual analysis: Be sure you understand the what, who, when, where, and why of your assignment. 
  • Identify the potential issues based on the factual analysis.
  • Identify potential follow-up questions. 
  • Note the area of law and jurisdiction.
  • Draft key search terms and phrases. 
  • Identify the types of sources you need to search and how you might access them.

Research Log Suggestions

Each time you locate and read a source, keep track of:

  • Date you completed the research.
  • Name of the source.
  • Location of the source (either in print or where in a database it can be found).
  • Search queries/terms used; note if you found a source using a previous source.
  • Findings/value of the source. How does this relate to the issue you identified in your plan?
  • Next steps or citations found.
  • Currentness of the source - to ensure you are using the most up-to-date materials.

Guidance on Efficient Research


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