STRATEGIES FOR ORGANIZING RESEARCH PROJECTS
Carefully read or review the facts upon which your problem is based before you begin. Make sure you can articulate some version of the issue(s) at the outset, although your version of the issue(s) may evolve as the research progresses.
Create a research plan and record it, possibly in checklist format. This plan may change or evolve as you work, but it can still provide guidance and a checklist for complete research. List both the tools you intend to use and the index terms/searches you will initially use to search them. (Be prepared to add new terms or searches to the list as they are suggested by the sources you consult.)
Your research plan should begin by building on what you already know about the problem or the sources of which you may already be aware. For example, we have discussed the need for background reading if you are thoroughly unfamiliar with the subject. Sometimes you already have a case or statute citation or name. If so, your research plan can build upon it as a starting point. For example, if you have the name or citation of a case, locate it and read it to a) obtain citations to other relevant cases cited in the opinion; b) look at its headnotes to see what topics/key numbers it is indexed under and use those to search the appropriate digest for additional cases; c) Shepardize or KeyCite it to obtain citations to additional authorities; and d) generate possible additional research vocabulary.
When approaching a research tool, spend a few minutes examining its structure so that you can use it most efficiently. A great deal of time can be wasted by plunging into a source before you understand how it is put together. Additionally, for a print source, check to make sure it is up-to-date before spending a lot of time with it. For electronic sources, use the guides or the database descriptions available on Lexis and Westlaw to make sure the database has the material you are looking for.
Develop a system for recording your research process and product. You can make your original research plan the blueprint for your research log. For each tool you consult, be careful to record:
Do not be frustrated if you find yourself returning to tools already consulted earlier in the process. You may have in mind different index terms or searches the second time around, as new relevant vocabulary becomes known to you through other sources you find. Just make certain that you record the work you do at each step of the way.
Read the sources you locate as you go along. A common pitfall is to gather stacks of information without reading or processing any of it. There are at least two reasons to read as you go along. First, a case that looks relevant at first glance, or that appears to be so from its summary in a digest or other source, may turn out to be less important than it seems, or even irrelevant. Second, the very nature of legal information and of legal research is that sources refer to each other. You will have leads to follow based on each source you find useful. Also, highlight and/or summarize the sources at the time you first examine them. For cases, you may find it useful to take notes on the facts and holding of each case rather than extensively briefing it.
Be certain that you record all the information you will need to properly cite the primary sources you are using. For example, when recording the citation to a case, make sure you record the court that decided it and the date as well as the reporter cite. For statutes, record the date of the volume and pocket parts that contain the text of the statute.
Validate cases early in the process. Once you have determined that a case is relevant and/or important, use citation tools to verify its precedential status. Shepardizing or KeyCiting will provide the same information, with the additional benefit of citations to subsequently decided cases which develop the legal principle(s) you are researching.
If your research involves multiple issues, at some point you will need to organize your research log accordingly. Sometimes outlining your ultimate written work product helps. List each major point of your analysis/argument and indicate which authorities you will cite to support each. A particular statute or case may figure in more than one part of your outline.
For a complex problem, the organization of your research may be demanding and following through each lead may seem a daunting task. It takes practice to do this successfully, but you will help yourself immensely and minimize time-wasting backtracking if you follow the tips outlined above.
TIPS FOR DEVELOPING RESEARCH ORGANIZATION SKILLS
1) Carefully read or review the facts upon which your problem is based before you begin.
2) Formulate issue(s) and research vocabulary before starting to look at sources.
3) Develop and record a research plan.
4) Your research plan should begin by building upon what you already know about the problem.
5) When approaching a research tool, spend a few minutes examining its content and structure so that you can use it most efficiently and so you know it is appropriate for your needs.
6) Develop a system for recording your research process and product.
7) Carefully record all information pertinent to your research. Include dates checked and index/search terms used. Also include information essential for correct citation form.
8) Read the sources as you go along.
9) Validate cases (using citation tools) early in the process.
10) Begin plugging authorities into your topic outline as you go along.