Good research begins with knowing what is being asked of you and 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. We recommend consulting the JUST ASK checklist of questions to ask when receiving a new research assignment:
Jurisdiction – Do you need to look at federal law? If so, what circuit? State law? Administrative decisions? Some combination of the above?
Useful Tips – Does the assigning attorney have any suggestions for where to start? Are there any important experts, cases, documents, etc. that you need to know about?
Scope of Research - How much information does the attorney need? Is this an exhaustive search or just an overview? Ask for a deadline!
Terms of Art – Are there any key words or phrases that you need to know?
Acronyms – Clarify the spelling and meaning of any acronyms. Attorneys often use acronyms without realizing that people new to the field don’t know their meaning. Don’t be afraid to ask what an acronym stands for.
Sources – The assigning attorney is likely an expert in the field and knows of a “go-to” source in that area. Ask if there is a well-known treatise they recommend.
Key Cost Constraints – Are there any billing restrictions related to Lexis, Westlaw, document delivery services, etc.? How many hours should you spend on the project?
Beyond JUST ASK:
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:
Legal research is iterative and non-linear and tracking your research is an important part of the legal research process. Keep a research journal, log, or record of your work. Include the following in your journal:
As part of a cost-effective research strategy, we also recommend making use of the folders on Lexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg. If you are working in an environment where there are charges associated with viewing or downloading documents, saving them to a folder can save you from being charged a second time if you need to view them again in the future. But saving documents to a folder is also an good way to keep track of your work. Make use of the highlight and annotation tools to take note of why you are saving the documents.
Evernote and PowerNotes
Since many research tasks will involve using multiple databases and websites, another useful tool you have access to is Evernote or PowerNotes. With Evernote or PowerNotes, you can gather information from any online resource. You highlight the relevant text, add any wanted annotations and Evernote and PowerNotes will save the content to an online research project, similar to a folder on Westlaw or Lexis. But with Evernote and PowerNotes, you can save content from any website or subscription databases such as Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg Law, HeinOnline, etc. in one place.
As you are adding sources to your research project in Evernote and PowerNotes, an outline will be built for you as you go. As you are working, you can easily restructure your arguments by dragging and dropping sources to move them around within the outline.
When you are ready to start writing, you can download your outline from PowerNotes to Microsoft Word. The download from PowerNotes to Microsoft Word will also include the links to all your sources so you will not forget where the information came from and you have all your citations saved in one place.
To get started with Evernote, visit evernote.com and download/install the Evernote extension into your Firefox browser. Create an account using your vanderbilt.edu email address.
To get started with PowerNotes, visit powernotes.com and download/install the PowerNotes extension into your Chrome browser. Create an account using your vanderbilt.edu email address.
The best time to stop researching is when you have found the answer. However, one of the trickiest research tasks is knowing when your research is completed and many researchers lack the confidence to know exactly when that time has arrived.
Legal research is iterative and nonlinear and requires thorough research involving 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:
Don't be afraid to ask for help. Law firm and court librarians can help direct you to the best resources and help you develop a research strategy.
Be mindful of the cost of online expenses. Unlike the unlimited access to research databases that you are familiar with at Vanderbilt, there are costs associated with using these resources at firms and courts. Firms may have flat rate contracts with Lexis, Westlaw, or Bloomberg, but they will still track research charges in order to bill them back to the client.
But this doesn't mean that you should waste precious time trying to find an answer on Google. Your time is valuable. Firms pay for the databases, so there is an expectation that you will use them. Just make sure you use them wisely. When in doubt, ask for help.
Additionally, consider this advice collected from our colleagues in firm and court libraries:
Paper topics for seminar classes should be original, significant, timely, and fascinating. The paper topic ideas should be fascinating in the sense that they should be informed by your own interests and by your audience's needs and concerns. Paper topic ideas must also be manageable to meet the requirements of the course and the time allotted to you.
These books can help you select a successful topic and plan and organize your paper:
Once you have settled on an important and manageable paper topic that interests you, you will need to do a careful search of legal periodicals to determine what has already been written that may "preempt" your paper. The preemption process entails a meticulous survey of the pertinent legal or specialized literature to determine whether your paper topic and your treatment of your paper topic have already been published by someone else.
To conduct a preemption check you must do more than just survey some of the pertinent law or law-related scholarly literature that deals with your topic; you must locate and scrutinize all of it. In fact, you should begin your preemption check soon after a topic has begun to engage your serious interest, so that you do not invest too much time researching and writing on a topic already covered by someone else whose approach you are unable to distinguish yourself from.
To find articles in journals, you will generally consult an index (in paper or online) or search online for full text. For the preemption process you will use these same tools to locate preempting literature in law journals, law-related journals, or specialized scholarly journals.
I. Indices/Law Periodicals
Any of these indices is designed to provide you with a specific citation to a specific article. Armed with a specific citation you can locate the cited literature by searching our library catalog. If our library does not own the publication you seek, then you can request it from interlibrary loan, an online service of this library.
II. Full Text Databases
In many instances, the specific journal article you wish to read can be found on a full text database. Both Lexis Advance and Westlaw Edge contain full text of thousands of law review articles. Lexis Advance now offers full text coverage of more than 400 law reviews, and Westlaw Edge provides full text coverage of 475 journals, combined with abstracted or selective coverage of more than 600 journals. This substantial full text coverage does not supplant the usefulness of periodical indices, however, for at least two reasons. First, Lexis Advance covers fewer than 450 law journals and law reviews, and Westlaw Edge's coverage of 600 journals is often selective or limited to abstracts. Second, at least 300 of Westlaw Edge's online full text journals begin in 1993 or later, and only 100 of the full text journals on Lexis Advance begin before 1993.
Another full text database, HeinOnline, is a pdf based collection of full text legal research materials, including over 2,600 law-related periodicals dating back to their inception.
III. Non-Law Indices
To determine whether pending not-as-yet-published legal scholarship preempts your work on your note topic, look at Social Science Research Network (SSRN). From there click onto LSN, the legal scholarship network. The LSN homepage provides a link to a list of law and law-related journals and working papers who provide email abstracts of materials they have accepted for publication but have not yet published.
Wrongful convictions occur in the United States for a variety of reasons, so it is most helpful to start your research with tools that will give you a good overview of the various factors that contribute to these convictions. As the study of wrongful convictions is much more policy-based and relies on data, traditional research methods like using generalized keyword searches on Westlaw or Lexis Advance would not necessarily prove fruitful. I would recommend starting with an overview of the subject with secondary source materials that parse out the mechanisms behind different kinds of wrongful convictions.