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Best Practices for Legal Research: What Experts Say, Part 3

— January 24, 2020

“You can’t do everything yourself if you want to grow. Professionally you might seem like the perfect person for the research required, but in reality, you only have so many hours in the day. So, you have to involve paralegals, associates, and any others who can help.” ~Brian Thackston

Our three-part series on Best Practices for Legal Research concludes today with Google Scholar, clarity of objectives, teamwork, and a research guide.

5 guiding tips to complete a thorough legal research

Freddy Davoodian, Co-Founder of JurisCase

Thorough legal research can be the difference that helps you win a case. It is often regarded as the backbone of a lawyer’s practice. Essentially, what determines a good legal research is your ability to search through precedent case law quickly and thoroughly.

There are many traditional legal research databases that you can use, but most are outdated and inefficient. New legal-tech companies have emerged to challenge the status quo, in order to improve the quality and speed of legal researching. Regardless of which legal research software you choose to use, legal research follows the same process every time.

 The following is a full guide to doing thorough legal research:

1) Lay the foundation

 a. Analyze the facts of the legal issue

The first thing you should do is to read all the material at hand, so that you can analyze the facts and have a good foundation to start your legal research.

 b. Make a list of what you know and what you don’t know.

This is a critical step in gathering more information from secondary sources. Knowing what you don’t know can save you a lot of time because your focus will be on what you need to learn, rather than what you already know.

 c. Make a note of any jurisdictions your legal issue involves.

Simply put, you have to know which jurisdictions to search in, in order to find the relevant case law for your legal issue.

 d. Make a list of relevant search terms.

While you are laying the foundation, keep an eye out for potential search terms that are relevant to your legal issue.

 2) Refer to secondary sources

 Starting with secondary sources is a terrific way to find and understand primary sources of law, such as case law, regulations, and statutes. Secondary sources help you understand legal principles, and can point toward primary sources of law that you will need in preparing for your case.

 Good secondary sources to start with:

 – Legal encyclopedias

 – Law journals

 – Google Scholar

3) Search through a legal database to find primary authority

Once you have laid the foundation for your research, and have gathered information from secondary sources, it’s time to search in a legal research database to find primary sources. Here are some tips to quickly find the primary sources:

 – Use the list of key search terms to pull up search results. As you do your searches, keep an eye out for more search terms that you can add to your list.

 – As you search every term on your list, keep an eye out for recurring cases, statutes, and regulations. If a case is recurring, it is a good indicator that it is relevant to your legal issue.

 – Read summaries of the cases to get a quick glimpse of what content of the case entails. This way, you can quickly eliminate any irrelevant cases from your research.

 – Use citators to find similar case law

4) Read and analyze the primary law
When you have found the necessary primary law, now it is time to read the law.
By reading the case law, you will be able to determine whether it is truly relevant and binding, or not.

Lastly, if the case you have read is relevant and binding, you must determine if it is still good law. With JurisCase, you can quickly see if a case has any negative treatment.

5) Investigate the entities involved in your legal issue.

Investigations are normally not part of the legal research process, because it has nothing to do with case law. That’s why I’m considering this a bonus step.

A thorough legal researcher doesn’t look at researching as just finding relevant case law, but instead, looks at the legal issue as a whole when researching. Other than relevant case law, you must know about the parties that are involved in your case. What is their background? Do they have a criminal history? Any judgments, liens, and prior lawsuits? Any assets or wages? The key is to find private information so that you can prepare and prevent being blind-sided.

Delegate, Communicate, and Ask For Help

Brian Thackston Director of Marketing & Operations at Frost & Associates

You can’t do everything yourself if you want to grow. Professionally you might seem like the perfect person for the research required, but in reality, you only have so many hours in the day. So, you have to involve paralegals, associates, and any others who can help.

Gavel and two hardbound books on wooden table; image by Succo, via
Gavel and two hardbound books on wooden table; image by Succo, via

In order to delegate and get others involved, you first need to clearly lay out your conditions of satisfaction for the research – how much time should be spent on what and at what milestones should the research be presented and reviewed? Lawyers who know how to clearly communicate their wants and needs to staff supporting them are lawyers who tend to get more done.

If you want to get better at legal research, then you need to become skilled in the art of asking others for help. That means knowing how to get the best value out of your staff, but you should also know when to tap into the experience of other lawyers and business professionals in your network. A well-directed question can help you skip past the wrong rabbit holes and quickly lead you to the right research path.

Making use of multiple sources for case studies

Cory Morris Attorney/Counselor at Cory H. Morris, P.C.

I focus on a great deal of criminal/constitutional matters, and the best source of research is first to keep up to date with decisions that are coming down currently, either directly or through compiled sources (i.e., the New York State Bar Association).

One can do this through one of the judicial department/Court of Appeals/Supreme Court websites. This is easy enough to do, provided one is disciplined to do so. These cases will be dispositive of the new issues in law and will repeat some of the older concepts.

Google Scholar is the second tool, the second step in this process. My colleagues always ask how I am able to quickly perform research without Lexis or Westlaw – the combination of knowing, or being able to recall, a great deal of the recent case law, seeing it as it comes down from various compiled sources, and the ability to engage the ease of Google Scholar without paying fees for several quick searches are my best research practices.

Having a clear objective before starting the research work

Israel F. Piedra, Esq. Welts, White & Fontaine, P.C.

This question is very broad, but I will do my best to provide a couple of thoughts.

 1) For legal research topics I am unfamiliar with, I often start with secondary sources, such as treatises and practice guides. Those can help give you a quick context for your legal issue, and provide citations to helpful case law.

 2) It’s important to define the legal question you’re trying to answer. If the question is vague, you can try to determine what the ultimate goal of the inquiry is, and use that to better define or narrow the question.

 3) If I am researching case law, I often start narrowly, and try to find a case exactly on point (whether it is in my jurisdiction or outside). If I can find a comparable case, then I may be able to identify each element of its reasoning and reconstruct those elements with case law in my own jurisdiction.

 4) Using Boolean searches (i.e., terms and connectors) is absolutely essential to conduct a comprehensive research.

5) I use LexisAdvance for my legal research; Westlaw is also a top provider in the United States.


These legal research practices shared by worldwide legal experts will surely help law firms, lawyers, and paralegals in performing result-oriented research. As many lawyers utilize a legal research tool as a helping hand, it is considered as a smarter way today.

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