THE LEGAL RESEARCH PROCESS
Legal research is not a linear process. The following represent steps that are typically taken when doing legal research. The order in which the steps are taken may vary depending on information that is known at the outset of the project, on information that is discovered during the research process, and on the scope of the project.
Analyze the facts and formulate a preliminary statement of issues.
This is a continuous process. Be prepared to reframe the issue(s) as your research progresses.
Familiarize yourself with the court structure of the jurisdiction.
It may be necessary to do background research to determine whether state or federal law applies.
Conduct background research to get an overview of the subject area, identify issues and terms, and get clues to primary sources.
Learn the types of authority involved, i.e. whether the issues are governed by case law, statutory law, administrative law or a combination. You may need to learn some of the "black letter law" to gain a context for your research. Secondary sources can be useful for this purpose.
Search for legal authority using appropriate methods of updating.
There are many different techniques for finding primary authorities. For any given research project, some will work better than others. Using a variety of tools will ensure comprehensive research and compensate for difficulties that one may encounter in using particular sources. Always look for pocket parts and other supplements when using print sources. Note the dates of coverage in all electronic sources consulted.
Read and evaluate primary authorities.
Never overlook the importance of reading cases and other authorities as you go along. Do not substitute reading of the headnotes, synopses or interpretations in secondary sources for your own thoughtful reading of the authorities you find. Look for holdings of cases, not just broad statements of the law.
Make sure cases are still good law and you have the current version of statutes.
Time can often be saved by using case validation tools (citators) as soon as you read a case and determine that it is relevant to your issue. Make sure you have checked all available supplements if using print sources. Look up statutes in electronic form to check for recent amendments.
Refine analysis and formulate conclusion.
Returning to secondary sources near the end of a research project can be helpful. These sources can be easier to understand after you have read some of the primary authorities.
When should you stop?