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Make the Most of Legal Research

Precious R Johnson


  • Legal research allows associates to contribute to case strategy and showcase their analytical skills.
  • Utilize internal and external resources, such as fellow associates, research teams, and chat support features on legal research platforms, to gather relevant case law and guidance.
  • Think creatively, explore other jurisdictions, and apply your findings strategically to provide practical and organized research reports.
Make the Most of Legal Research
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As attorneys, we are expected to have all the answers. But the truth is we sometimes run into uncharted territory and have to hunt down the answer. Legal research provides an opportunity for associates to valuably contribute to case strategy, showcase their analytical skills, and make themselves vital members of their team. Associates who are asked to conduct legal research should take note of the following tips.

  • Use internal and external resources. Internal and external resources can be a tremendous help in terms of a starting point—especially when you are in a time crunch! Internal resources include your fellow associates and your firm’s research team. Often, your firm’s research team can use their expertise to provide relevant case law to you quickly. Their findings can familiarize you with general principles related to your issue and can also serve as a starting point for your own research, so that you are not starting from scratch. This sort of assistance is extremely helpful when you are a new lawyer or new to practicing in a certain area of law. In regard to external resources, some legal research platforms (e.g., LexisNexis) have chat support features so you can instant message or call research experts for assistance. This allows you to talk through your issue in lay terms with a research expert who can translate that into on point search terms and connectors that you can modify and use as you conduct your own research.
  • Think outside of the box (and jurisdiction) when appropriate. When researching, you should first look for on point, binding case law. But if you can’t find it, you should not just stop your search. Consider running a natural language search to make sure the search terms you used didn’t hamper your results. Even further, think outside of the box and contemplate other (creative and possibly even novel) ways to frame your argument. Also consider searching court filings for key terms to see if any other lawyers have recently briefed your issue. Lastly, you should open up your search to other jurisdictions to locate persuasive case law.
  • Apply your findings to your case. It is important that you do more than just report the rule and case law. Take it a step further and add strategic value by analyzing how the case law applies to your case and set of facts.
  • Report your findings in a practical, organized manner. You should aim to report your findings in a straightforward manner that can be easily understood and applied. Typically, you should first state the legal issue or question (e.g., “Does the punitive damages cap apply?”). Then, you should state a one- or two-word answer with a short explanation (sometimes referred to as a “short answer,” e.g., “Yes, the $250,000 cap applies because this case does not fit into either of the three case categories that are excluded from the cap by statute.”). Next, you should provide a longer explanation and analysis (sometimes referred to as a “long answer”). Lastly, you should list out all supporting case law by case name and full case citation, noting any helpful statements from the court. Do not forget to include pincites! You want to be able to easily find that helpful language later.
  • Keep your audience in mind. When compiling your research findings, you should think about who will be reviewing your findings and how they will be using them. For example, if your report will be shared with a client for purposes of making a business decision, consider highlighting key takeaways from your research in layman’s terms and use legalese and case law only where necessary. On the other hand, if you are sharing your report with other attorneys on the case (e.g., counsel for co-defendants) who will use your findings in a brief or at a hearing, consider preparing a more formal legal memorandum, including case citations and the court’s legal reasoning in each decision.
  • Attach and highlight opinions. Whether preparing a formal legal memorandum or simply pulling cases that you or a colleague may use down the road, consider attaching each opinion referenced in your memo or report, highlighting relevant portions of the opinion that go the crux of the issues you are researching, particularly when you are citing a long case for one key portion. Senior attorneys tend to find this very helpful.