Streamlining Legal Research as a Young Lawyer

As any attorney will admit, one of the skills most central to a litigator's practice is conducting legal research. This is especially true for young lawyers who are usually the ones tasked with delving into the case law to identify and answer the legal issues arising in a case. For example, a 2014 survey published by the ABA showed that attorneys with less than ten years in practice spent nearly a third of their working hours researching. Taking the time to develop strong researching practices early on in one's career is a great way to add value to a case. Use these five tips to streamline your legal research:

1. Know the Research Question
Oftentimes, attorneys rush into their research before fully understanding the issue they're investigating. Before pulling up any cases, take time to evaluate and digest your research question, especially if it is an area of law with which you are not familiar. A helpful way to start is by "pre-researching." This involves gathering background information about the research topic so that you have an idea of what you will be looking for. Not only does "pre-researching" give you a sense of what authorities you'll be relying on, but also it helps you to understanding what keywords you will be using to construct your searches. Start your investigation with the attorney assigning you the research. Discuss the issue with him or her, and be sure to ask questions. The assigning attorney may be able to suggest a helpful practice guide or treatise that can get you started in the right direction. Then don't be afraid to use free resources like Google or Wikipedia to identify key authority on the issue.

2. Understand Your Tools, and Their Costs
Part of transitioning from an academic environment into a legal practice involves getting acquainted with the business side of the law. Increasingly so, clients and firms are sensitive to the costs associated with legal research. Be aware of what research tools are available to you, how they operate, and what they are useful for. This will save time on your research by helping you to work more efficiently. It is also important to recognize how you incur costs while accessing these resources. Learning how your work is charged will help you to be aware of how to best minimize those costs for your firm and client.

3. Working and Reworking Your Search Terms
Sometimes young lawyers are tempted to approach legal research as if it is a common internet search. This results in haphazardly running searches in the hopes that it will turn up something useful. Instead, a better approach is to plan out and keep track of search terms that you determine will likely be related to your research topic. This will help you to avoid backtracking over your research.

First, use your pre-research to come up with a list of keywords that are related to your research question. Once you have an initial set of terms, experiment with search connectors to help streamline your results into a manageable dataset. Sometimes your first set of terms will not be enough, but that's OK. Don't be afraid to go back to the drawing board to rework a new set of search terms. You'll often find that sources you identify during your research will lead you to more useful terms that you hadn't thought of. Keep a running list of your searches to help identify which are giving you the best results.

4. Organize Your Notes
The quickest way to get stuck which researching is to lose track of your sources. To avoid this, develop the habit of keeping organized notes about what you've found. This will save you from having to go back relocate information later on in the process. An added benefit of keeping organized notes is that you can use them as a starting point for future research questions. One way of doing this is to use headnotes to quickly summarize key information about cases you read. Be sure to save information about the source, so that you can easily access it again.

5. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Keeping the communication lines open with your assigning attorney can be a tremendous aid in conducting effective research. Check in with updates on how the search is coming, especially when you encounter problems. Sometimes a fifteen minute phone conversation can clear up an issue that would otherwise haven taken you hours to solve on your own. Not only does this keep you moving forward on your project, but also it helps to avoid overbilling for work which isn't helpful to the client.

Lucas T. Rael is an associate with Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago, Illinois.


Copyright © 2017, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

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