The Importance of Legal Research

Vol. 41 No. 8

By

I doubt Steven Spielberg thought anyone watching Lincoln would think about legal research, but that’s what happened to me. In one pivotal scene, Lincoln and his Cabinet gather to discuss the proposed amendment abolishing slavery. Various Cabinet members are opposed to supporting an amendment they see as unlikely to pass by the needed super-majority.

Lincoln, on the other hand, supports the amendment. He feels strongly that slavery must be abolished, but, he worries that the Emancipation Proclamation is vulnerable. The Proclamation was a war measure, he explains, but, without a war, questions about the legality of the Proclamation and its effects will no doubt be raised. A constitutional amendment is the legal cure needed to settle the uncertainty and end slavery for good.

As I listened to Lincoln explain his reasoning, I couldn’t help but think about legal research. Lincoln had found, understood, and applied the law. This process allowed him to correctly assess the legal weaknesses of the Emancipation Proclamation. It also helped him realize that a constitutional amendment was the best solution available. In that way, legal research played a critical role in Lincoln’s decision to pursue the 13th Amendment despite heavy opposition.

While Lincoln’s legal research didn’t include Westlaw or Lexis, its underlying principles of finding, understanding, and applying the law remain the same today. Today’s lawyers continue to use legal research on a daily basis to prepare them to advise clients, negotiate with opposing counsel, or persuade a judge or jury.

You’ll experience the importance of legal research when a client seeks your help to modify a child custody order, to sue for misappropriation of trade secrets, or to defend them in an insider trading case. Legal research will help you find, understand, and apply the law. Performing good legal research in this way will provide you with the foundation you need to proceed confidently and achieve the best result for your client.

Despite the importance of legal research in legal practice, I’m often surprised at how many first-year law students (and sometimes others) seem disinterested in the topic. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised—legal research doesn’t hold the appeal of some topics, like constitutional or criminal law. Legal research also requires more hands-on work, which rarely evokes endearment from law students. Many students even have the mistaken notion that legal research is easy.

But, whatever the reason for the initial lack of interest in legal research, something changes when law students head out to legal jobs during the summer. That’s because they’re asked to research—again and again and again. In fact, the majority of law students I talk to spend the majority of their summer researching.

So, while law students may or may not grow to love legal research, they do come to understand that it’s a critical skill they must acquire. In fact, upon returning from the summer, many of my former students remark that our legal research and writing class was by far the most helpful of their first year. I always wish they would have realized this earlier—and they do too—but better late than never.

The sooner you gain an appreciation for the importance of legal research the better. Here are a few tips that might help:

Take a broader view of research.

Some students and even attorneys have a narrow view of research. To them, research is Lexis or Westlaw. Good legal research, however, is much more than a research system; it’s a process. Good legal research is intertwined with analysis, understanding, and application. While finding the law is important, “one has not truly found the law until he understands it,” as one prominent law librarian has noted. A research system can’t do that for you.

A lawyer’s understanding and analysis of a case often begins in the research stage when she identifies the relevant facts and determines the legal issues that must be researched. This analysis continues and is refined as she decides where, how, and what to search. As she finds seemingly relevant legal materials, she must understand them and how they apply to the facts of her case. This research provides a crucial analytical foundation that will inform her decisions for the remainder of the case. When viewed in this light, research can be seen not merely as a fleeting Westlaw search, but as a critical, enduring component of representing a client.

Take research seriously.

If you’re serious about getting yourself ready to practice competently, you need to be committed to developing your research skills. The first step is easy—don’t blow off your research classes. The more you put into these classes, the more you’ll get out of them.

Taking research seriously also means working on your research skills and knowledge outside a structured class. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out. The truth is that there’s never enough time in a legal research class to cover everything—the intricacies of specialized areas, the latest databases, etc. It’s likely that your law library provides optional training sessions to help you learn these things. You won’t be able to attend them all, but go as often as you can. Westlaw, Lexis, and others also provide training, as well as a number of online tutorials that can be helpful.

Your law library, as promoter of all things legal research, also likely has a blog, a Twitter account, a Facebook page or [enter new tool here] that keeps students up to date on new databases or legal research tips. Keep track of these sources, or some from another library, and you’ll be surprised how much additional legal research knowledge you gain that will help you in school or at work.

Take advanced legal research.

Most law schools offer some sort of advanced or specialized legal research course as an elective. Take it! Take it even if you don’t love legal research. Especially take it if you’re not good at legal research. You will soon be doing research on someone else’s dime. Why not get ready for it?

Most, if not all, advanced legal research classes are taught by law librarians. They are expert researchers who know about the latest legal resources and can teach you a lot about the legal research process. You’ll also get the chance to do a lot of research, which is critical to becoming a good researcher. If you don’t practice researching now, you’ll be doing it at your job, which is where you’d be better off impressing than learning.

Abraham Lincoln’s quip about a book he read could easily be applied to legal research—“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” The truth is, however, that whether you like it or not, legal research is a critical part of lawyering. Don’t underestimate its importance.

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