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Legal Skills and Research: Legal Research

Information and resources on legal skills and legal research techniques.

Books on Legal Research

Quick guide to Legal Research

Being able to research in an effective manner is an essential skill whether you are a student or in practice.  The primary aim of conducting clear and methodical legal research is finding the answer to a legal question in the most time effective way and knowing that you have searched in all the relevant sources.  Being able to show that you have good legal research skills can help in securing training contracts in law firms or funding for study or research projects.  In legal practice it can also help to show any client that your work is accurate and that it is value for money.

Below is a very quick guide to one legal research method technique.  There are also presentations and tutorials coming soon.

 


 

  Quick overview of the legal research process

The research path you follow will vary depending on the nature of your topic and legal issue. There is no single “right” path to take in conducting   legal research. While there will be times when you will follow the research steps suggested herein in a linear fashion, that will not always be the case. 

Regardless of the path you follow using the steps below, if you are thorough and flexible in your research you will succeed!

  1.    Identify the scope of the legal question.   Ask specific questions to identify:

(a) the relevant jurisdiction

(b) key sources and search terms

(c) the applicable time period.

  2.   Begin your research by consulting a secondary source.

Core texts, Halsbury’s Laws, key articles, can give perspective on how your specific issue fits into a broader legal context and will assist you in finding on-point primary authority.   These are particularly useful if you have no experience of the area of law as they will act as a background. Note references to pertinent statutes and case citations.  Search for articles on the topic using the main legal journal indexes.  These include the Legal Journals Index (on Westlaw), Index to Legal Periodicals via Oxlip+ and Google Scholar.  You can also widen the scope of your search to outside the legal indexes and search the Social Science Citation Index as well.

  3.   Identify relevant statutes.

If you located an applicable statute in your review of secondary sources, review the annotations for the applicable provision in Halsbury’s Statutes or on one of the various databases (Westlaw, Lexis Library, Legislation.gov). Browse the contents of the statute to identify any other pertinent sections. Browse the contents page of the Halsbury's Statutes volume to find other relevant statutes.  Look at any analysis documents available on the databases.

  4.    Identify the cases that are on-point for your specific facts.

When reading secondary sources, note cases that relate to your set of facts. Follow up the cases, checking headnotes and reading judgments that seem applicable. One good case can be a great starting point for research on narrow topics.

  5.   Use digests and databases to find more cases.

Digests provide another excellent resource to identify relevant case law. The Digest is a good source for finding English and Commonwealth cases by topic. It has the same subject structure as Halsbury’s Laws.  You can also search for cases on the databases using subject terms.  You may need to think about your search terms carefully as the database are very large. Use Boolean operators and connectors when possible to increase the accuracy of your results.

   6.    Confirm that your authority is still good law.

Use Westlaw Case Analysis, Lexis Case Search or a print citator to check that your cases are still good law and provide the most current, direct authority available for your set of facts.

   7.    Search other online sources  to fill any gaps in your research. 

There are many other online sources other than Westlaw and Lexis Library.  There are free sources such as the Legal Scholarship Network which can be useful for recent articles as well as Google Scholar, Bailii and Legislation.gov. Blogs, policy websites and so on are also useful, depending on the topic but you must be careful to evaluate the information you find on the web for accuracy.

   8.    Keep a record of your research trail.

Document all sources reviewed, including all sections and page numbers, regardless of whether you located relevant materials in them. This will help you later when you write up your research and need to check points.

  Some keys to legal research success:

(a) Get to know your librarian

(b) Take the courses on topics/searching/endnote etc on offer

(c) Get out of the Google-search mindset – ask us the tricks of each database

(d) Look beyond Lexis and Westlaw

(e) Use secondary sources

(f) Know when to stop!

 

Legal Research presentation

Coming soon