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What You Always Wanted to Know about Legal Research (*But Were Afraid to Ask!)

This guide provides quick tips about common legal research tasks. It was originally prepared for a Bridge the Legal Research Gap program.

Using a New Source

When you are using a new source for the first time--in print or online--look for a "how to use" or "about" section. The information there will help you understand the scope of the resource and how to use it most efficiently and effectively.

Browse the table of contents and/or the index. These are essential tools for navigating print materials but they are also useful with online treatises.

Look for publication and/or supplementation dates to determine whether you need to use another tool to bring the research up-to-date.

Citations

When you can't find a citation format for the type of material you want to cite, try searching the law reviews published by the creators of the Bluebook in either Lexis Advance or WestlawNext. Limit your search to articles published after the latest edition of the Bluebook. You might get lucky and find a citation that you can use!

Take Notes

Keep a research log for each project. See Develop the Habit: Note-Taking in Legal Research, written by Gallagher librarians Penny Hazelton, Peggy Jarrett, Nancy McMurrer, and Mary Whisner.

Their top 10 tips (paraphrased) are:

  1. Be clear about the research goal. If someone else has assigned the project, ask questions about when the project is due, what kind of product is expected, relevant sources, etc.
  2. Prepare to cite. As you identify relevant sources, collect the information you will need to create a Bluebook citation.
  3. Note sources searched and search terms used.
  4. Note people, organizations, or websites you've used.
  5. Add notes to documents retrieved via online sources like Lexis Advance and WestlawNext to help you recall why you saved each document.
  6. Annotate photocopies with notes and color highlights, again so that you can quickly determine how the copied source fits into your research.
  7. Record how current the sources you found were. Will you need to do additional updating before your research project concludes.
  8. If someone else requested the research, keep that person informed of your progress.
  9. Organize your notes so that you can later answer any questions about what you searched, how you searched, and what searches yielded useful results.
  10. Consider designing your own research cover sheet.

Many Internet sources are here today, gone tomorrow. If the item you find is important to your research, download a copy and save it in a folder on your computer or a file-sharing service like Dropbox or Google Drive.

When is it safe to stop? Generally, when the same cases and statutes repeatedly appear in your results.