Legal research is a difficult and time-intensive task, especially for young associates. Stand out from the pack by keeping these tips in mind when conducting legal research and writing.
- Answer the Question: It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole when conducting legal research. When you find yourself starting to veer off course, always ask yourself – does this help answer the question that I was asked? If you’re not sure, check in with your assigning attorney to see if they want you to follow the new path.
- Keep Jurisdiction in Mind: Always look for case law in the relevant jurisdiction first. If there is nothing authoritative on point, only then look outside the jurisdiction and highlight in your work product which cases are merely persuasive.
- Use Secondary Sources: Secondary sources are great places to start when you are getting up to speed on a topic. Do not be afraid to ask the assigning attorney if he or she knows of a good secondary source to start with.
- Read the Entire Case: Never cite to a case without reading it in full. Even if the language in the case is good for your client, if the case comes out the other way, the partner is not going to want to cite to that case in the brief. Every detail is important.
- Keep the Audience and Goal in Mind: Think about who you are writing for and how they will use your work product. Need to get back to the client with an answer by tomorrow? If so, keep it brief and lay out the answer upfront, supported by succinct analysis with copies of the cases. Will your research help drive the overall case strategy? If so, it’s less about providing an “answer” than it is giving the senior attorneys all of the information they need to make a decision. Always ask why the assigning attorney needs the research.
- Do Not Lie to the Court: Do not stretch or overstate an argument to the court or attempt to mislead on the facts. Remember that you have an ethical duty to disclose a pertinent case that is bad for your client (and the court will find it anyway because the court researches the issues itself, too). Instead, take the opportunity to explain why the case is distinguishable. Your reputation for honesty will follow you throughout your career – don’t compromise it.
- The Facts Are the Heart of Your Case: Crafting a good narrative can be the winning feature in a brief. The facts aren’t just a throwaway: highlighting facts that you will need to distinguish bad cases, pointing out details that add interest, and using facts to hold the case together as a coherent whole are extremely valuable skills. Cultivate them!
- Use Belt & Suspenders Arguments: Give the court more than one reason to rule in your favor. If there are alternative bases for a ruling, the outcome is bolstered on appeal. Judges don’t like to be overturned on appeal. The more comfortable the judge can feel ruling for you the better.
- Do Not Overlook Procedural Arguments: Procedural grounds are usually less controversial and generally stronger for the court on appeal. Procedural arguments also save judicial resources, and judges are trained to avoid ruling on the merits when it isn’t necessary to do so. Do not overlook procedural grounds! They are your friend, not lesser than the merits arguments.
- Always Check Local Rules: You want to paint yourself in the best possible light before the judge. If the judge asks for three courtesy copies in the local rules, make sure you provide those copies. If a specific larger font is requested, use it. Remember that proper format and content go all the way down from the FRCP to the court’s preferences.