Good research begins with knowing what is being asked of you and knowing what it is you are researching. Student research assistants may underestimate the importance of their initial communications with those assigning them projects. Given their initial enthusiasm and desire to appear informed, research assistants may make assumptions about the objectives for the research and neglect to ask clarifying questions. Good communication skills are vital to ensuring that you have a solid understanding of your assignments and that those giving you assignments know that you are reliable. 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 or district? State law? Local ordinances? International or foreign law? Administrative decisions? Some combination of the above?
Useful Tips – Does the assigning faculty member have any suggestions regarding where to begin your research? Are there any important secondary sources, cases, documents, etc. that you need to know about?
Scope of Research - How much information does the faculty member 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. Experts often use acronyms with which non-experts are unfamiliar--don’t be afraid to ask what an acronym denotes.
Sources – Ask if there is a well-known treatise, hornbook, or other secondary sources that the faculty member recommends you consult, even if only for background information.
Key Cost Constraints – 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:
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.
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. If you are not familiar with the legal issue then we always suggest starting with a secondary source to help you understand the context of the specific issue in the larger area of law, provide you with important phrases or terms of art, and direct you to the most important cases and statutes.
Primary Legal Sources
One of your most difficult decisions in research is knowing when your research is complete, 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 approaches to research.
The following may signal that you have found a good spot to conclude your research: