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Resources for Law Student Research Assistants

Research Methods Overview

Getting Started

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!

  • For assignments given to you via e-mail, read the e-mail thoroughly.
  • For assignments given to you during a meeting, listen carefully and take detailed notes. 
  • When you receive an assignment, ask questions to clarify the scope of the project and anything that is confusing.
    • Your questions should include asking for recommendations for key sources to consult; clarifying the format that your work product should take (i.e. research memorandum, hard copies of relevant material, draft insert for document, etc.); and confirming the deadline for completion of the assignment.

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:

  • Once you have worked through the JUST ASK steps, reiterate your understanding of the project. After you have been given an assignment, send a follow up e-mail confirming your understanding of the assignment, including the key issue(s) to be researched, the format your work product will take, and the deadline. This provides a good roadmap for you of the project and also gives your supervisor the opportunity to clarify any additional details.
  • Maintain good communication throughout the process.  As you work on the project, check in regularly to discuss your progress, and to seek additional guidance as needed. 
    • Timely respond to e-mails.  It is important to timely acknowledge e-mails that you receive, even if you cannot address the substance of the e-mail right away.  For example, if you receive an e-mail asking you to complete a short research assignment, respond at your earliest opportunity, even if you cannot begin work for a few days, to let the faculty member know that you received their e-mail and communicate your commitments and availability to begin.
  • Project confidence.  As a student researcher, it is natural to feel overwhelmed and unsure of your abilities when given a new assignment.  Do not let these feelings compromise your professionalism when communicating with faculty. Show enthusiasm for the project and ask appropriate questions about deadlines and suggestions for getting started.  Should you feel confused or overwhelmed as you work on a project, identify what it is you need guidance on, such as help prioritizing research items or confirmation that you are researching in the right places, and contact your faculty member and/or a librarian with specific questions.

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:

Preliminary Analysis

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.

  • Select appropriate keywords, terms of art, and phrases to use for generating search terms. For those keywords, think through synonyms that may be used in lieu of those words.
    • TAPP: Things, Actions/Activities, Persons, Places
    • TARP: Things, Actions/Activities, Relationships, Places
  • Identify your preliminary issues and formulate your search queries.
    • Identify what area(s) of law are implicated by your issue.
    • What is the question to be researched, what topics are implicated by that question, are there sub-issues that should be considered?
    • You may find it helpful to write out the question(s) that you are researching
  • Identify the jurisdiction(s) involved.
    • Before you begin your research, you need to determine which law is controlling for your issue.
      • Is the issue governed by state or federal law?
      • For state law questions, what state(s) law is at issue?  
      • For federal law questions, what are the relevant circuit and district courts?
      • Do I also need to consider international or foreign law?
  • What do you already know?
    • Identifying what you already know about the issue and/or area(s) of law involved in your research assignment will influence where you start your research.

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

  • Locate relevant statutes. If there is an on-point statute for your issue, look up that statute in an annotated code.  Take note not just of the language of the specific statute but also review the rest of the "chapter" in which the statute appears to identify other related and relevant statutes.  For each relevant statute, review the annotations for citations to cases and secondary sources.
  • Find relevant cases.  If you have identified relevant cases by looking at secondary sources and/or annotated codes, review those cases. Use the on-point headnotes of each case to search for other relevant cases in your jurisdiction, and use the citator (Shepard's in Lexis, KeyCite in Westlaw, and BCite in Bloomberg) to identify cases that have cited to your cases.  Also, do additional keyword type searches to find other relevant cases.
  • Confirm that your authority is still good law. Use a citator (Shepard's in Lexis, KeyCite in Westlaw, or BCite in Bloomberg) to confirm that your cases and statutes are still good law.

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:

  • Costs exceed benefits. When the research cost exceeds its expected benefits, you should stop.
  • Your searches keep turning up the same set of relevant authorities.  If you are no longer finding relevant new sources, you have probably found the bulk of what is available.
  • You have searched in a variety of available sources (i.e. secondary sources, cases, etc.) and resources (Westlaw/Lexis/Bloomberg, government websites, other available resources).
  • You have searched using a variety of keywords.
  • You have searched using a variety of methods (using secondary sources to find primary authority, keyword searching, mining headnotes to explore Topics/Key Numbers, reviewing citing references, etc.).
  • For your most relevant search results - you have reviewed both the sources they cite and sources that cite to those materials.