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Fordham University Law Library

RA Survival Guide  

Everything you need to know about being an RA
Last Updated: May 29, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates
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Working as an RA

Your job as a research assistant should be treated as a serious commitment - your Professor is counting on you to produce timely, well-summarized and thoroughly researched information to help advance his/her scholarship.  Take your job as seriously as you would any other type of employment, and follow these key tips to ensure a successful tenure as an RA.
Above all else, all assignments should be submitted in a timely manner.   Should you anticipate any delay in submitting the assignment to your Professor, contact him/her AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to inform him/her of this delay and if possible provide a revised anticipated completion time.

Receiving your Assignments

Upon receiving your assignments, here are some good questions to ask immediately to help guide you in your research process:

  • Are there any sources that would be particularly good for this assignment?
  • Are there any sources I should avoid?
  • Has anybody worked on this or a similar issue before?
  • How much time should I spend on this?
  • Would you like me to check in periodically?  If so, how often?
  • In what form do you want the answer?
  • Is there a particularly good example of that form I could see?
  • What do you expect me to find?

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Developing a Research Plan

Before jumping into your research with random Google searches, take some time to plan out how you will approach your research process -- by creating a solid plan at the beginning, you will feel more confident knowing when your research is complete.

  • Develop a preliminary issue statement based on your assignment
    • Your Professor generally will state this for you as a thesis statement -- your job is to then locate the relevant resources (either primary, secondary or both!) to defend and support it. 
  • Generate a list of search terms based on that statement
    • Start broad and then focus on sub-topics
    • When considering which key words are relevant, remember to consider:
      • Where the problem takes place (jurisdiction)
      • Who are the parties (relationships)
      • What things are involved
    • Two ways to expand number of search terms:
      • Vertical—to what larger categories does your search term belong? What smaller ones make it up?
      • Horizontal—what other words mean the same thing as your search term?
      • Always be thinking about categories.  Categories allow courts to analogize to present facts or distinguish from them.
    • If you are conducting research in a non-legal area (i.e. social sciences, medicine, business), you may need more information on that particular discipline before being able to generate appropriate keywords - take the time to run a general Google search or review a relevant Wikipedia article on your topic to get a sense of how key terms are used within that discipline. 
  • Identify the type and sequence of research sources to consult by identifying what you know, what you do not yet know, and how best to fill in the blanks
    • As a scholarly researcher, much of your research will involve secondary sources.  Remember, secondary sources provide brief overviews and summaries of the relevant legal topic, as well as citations to relevant primary material.   While there are many secondary sources on Lexis/WL, these are not generally the best places to start your research as an RA.  Consult "How do I conduct scholarly research?" for more information.
  • If you are researching a legal issue involving a primary source, use your basic legal research skills to locate relevant cases, statutes, and/or regulations in your jurisdiction
    • If you are researching primary source materials, remember to update them!
      • Shepardize/KeyCite for cases and statutes
      • For regulations it might be better to use Fed Register, or the website of the agency
      • Automated alerts can be set up on Lexis/WL  to keep you apprised of new cases that cite to your case or issue; contact a librarian for more information on how to do this.
  • If needed, locate precursor documents to help analyze intent - these are more advanced topics than we discussed in basic legal research so PLEASE contact a librarian for instruction and/or assistance in researching these sources:
    • Legislative history (for statutes)
    • Party briefs/dockets (for cases)
    • Notice and Comment rule-making documents (for regulations)
  • Ask yourself if any other jurisdictions have binding authority:  state, local, foreign, etc.  Repeat process for locating primary sources in those jurisdictions if it controls.

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When can I say my research is complete?

Remember, the nature of your question determines how exhaustive your research ought to be.   Your "end point" will be different for each assignment.

  • Were you asked to find a good case on issue X or were you asked to determine what the law is on X? 
    • If you need to find a good case on a particular issue, make sure it is from the appropriate jurisdiction, involves similar facts and legal issues, and is still “good law.”
    • If you are asked the find the law on X, the amount of research is more exhaustive than what is required if you are only looking for a good case.  This task involves a thorough survey of the relevant law and literature.
  •  Were you asked to quickly find an answer or conduct a more exhaustive research project?
    • Sometimes whoever assigns you a question wants you to quickly find an answer in a treatise.  However, in other instances you will be asked to conduct a more thorough survey of an area of the law.   If you are unsure of the depth of research you should conduct, check with whomever assigned you the question.
    • NB: Law students and younger attorneys instinctively answer their research questions by searching caselaw.  This may not always be what is asked of you or what is most efficient.  So, if your Professor has asked you to determine what the main treatise on the subject has to say on an issue, find the treatise and review the pertinent sections rather than diving into caselaw searches. 
  • If it has taken you only an hour to answer a question, make sure the question was an easy one to answer, like find a recent case on topic x.  There is no way to do meaningful analysis in an hour.
  • When you are asked to research a question in an area unfamiliar to you, and time and other considerations permit, you should take the opportunity to gain a basic understanding of the area.  If you are uncomfortable asking for your Professor for more background on the topic, the library can help; either contact a reference librarian or contact your Professor's library liaison directly.

At a minimum, you should complete the following steps for the average legal research assignment; policy research assignments will be different:

(1)  Find the controlling code section(s). Even if your issue is more specifically resolved by regulations, cases, or administrative decisions, you must always identify the controlling statute(s). 

(2)  Find all applicable regulations.

(3)  Find controlling cases or binding administrative decisions that specifically resolve your issue.

  • This step entails identifying the leading cases, as well as the subsequent cases that have construed those leading cases. 

(4)  Use headnotes from the leading cases to identify other relevant cases. 

(5)  If statutory language is ambiguous and no case has spoken upon your issue, look to legislative history to determine legislative intent. 

(6)  If this is an issue of first impression, look for persuasive authority, which includes:

  • cases from other jurisdictions;
  • cases construing similar laws (e.g. cases construing the Rehabilitation Act are accorded similar weight to cases construing the ADA);
  • proposed regulations;
  • non-binding administrative decisions or agency documents;
  • law review articles;
  • highly-influential treatises; and
  • restatements. 

(7)  Determine what your area’s canonical treatise has to say on your issue.  Here are some methods for finding the best treatise on your subject:

  • Consult the law library’s Guide to finding Legal Treatises:
  • Ask your Professor for his/her recommendation.
  • Google "[x] research guide", where [x] is your topic -- i.e., if you are researching corporate law, Google "corporate law research guide".  Your results will feature a number of law school library's guides on that topic, and almost all of them will provide a good listing of relevant treatises in that are.

(8)  Shepardize/Keycite all of the primary authority you’ve found to make sure the law to which you cite is still good law. 

  •  Have your code sections been amended?  Some areas of the law change very rapidly.
  • Have new regulations been issued?
  • Have your cases or decisions been distinguished or overruled?

After you complete the aforementioned steps, when you stop is a judgment call.  However, here are a couple tips:

  • Stop a line of research when you get to a point where the facts you are encountering, the law you are finding, or both, are no longer relevant to your research question.
  • Stop when you start seeing the same cases or familiar material again.  At this point, you can either stop or if you feel you still have other matters to address, take a fresh approach. 

Just because you’re done, doesn’t mean the project is.  To keep current:

    • Use a specialized service (BNA, CCH, etc.)
    • Follow a blog in the area
    • For regulations, try subscribing to an RSS feed for your proposed regulation
    • Set up an Alert service on Lexis/WL/Bloomberg for your issue or set up something similar with the WSJ/NYT/other relevant news source

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Contact information

Library contact information can be found here.

If you'd like to reach out to your faculty member's dedicated library liaison, a listing of liaisons can be found here.  Your faculty member's liaison will generally be very familiar with the topics and resources that your faculty member is interested in, and can also refer you to another librarian who may have different subject expertise for the particular issue you have been tasked to research.


How do I get paid?

In order to be paid in a timely fashion, it is IMPERATIVE that you follow the following steps to submit and obtain approval for your timesheets.  DO NOT WAIT until the last day of the pay period to fill in your hours - some pay periods have earlier deadlines so to avoid missing a payment, record your hours every day!

  1. You cannot get paid without filling out the requisite paperwork.  Contact Aisha Harper immediately if you have not yet completed this step.
  2. As soon as your paperwork has been submitted and approved by the University, you will notice an "Employee" tab on your My.Fordham.Edu screen.
  3. Click on the Employee tab to see the timesheets available to you in each pay period.
  4. Fill in the hours you worked for this time period; please remember that you not permitted to work more than 35 hours/week during the summer (20 hours/week during the school year), so please be sure to double-check your timesheet before submitting it.
  5. Once you have completed filling in the hours for that period, click on the "Submit for approval" button.
  6. As soon as you have completed step #5, send your faculty member an email listing out the hours your have submitted and have them contact Aisha Harper (or someone in the Administration office) to approve them.
  7. Until step #6 is completed, your timesheet cannot be submitted for processing.  Therefore, please make sure to email your faculty member as soon as you submit your timesheet to allow for prompt processing.

Please remember you are participating in a University-wide payment system and therefore all deadlines must be STRICTLY ADHERED TO if you are to be paid on time. 

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How to get an RA card from the library

As an RA, you receive special privileges in the library.  These may include:

  • being able to check out books under your faculty member's account;
  • make free photocopies for your faculty member;
  • receive additional printing credit to print out materials for your faculty member

To avail of these privileges, you need to first obtain an RA card.

To obtain an RA card, you must ask for a RA card form from the reference desk.  You must then bring this form to your professor and ask him/her to supply the end date of your employment, whether or not he/she gives you permission to check out books under his/her name, and his/her signature:

Once this form is complete, please bring it to the reference desk during our open hours and we will grant you a card:

You may then show this card to check out books and receive a photocopy card at the circulation desk, and to receive additional print credit in the ISP office.

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How do I get extra printing credit to print materials for my professor?

If your professor requests you to print out a large number of documents to review, you can request additional printing credit be added to your student account to cover this cost.  To request this allowance, simply show your RA card up to the Law School Help Desk office which is located on the Lower Level of the law school buidling.  Credit is added $10 at a time and can be requested more than once.

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How do I conduct scholarly research?

(double-click screen to play)

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How do I start my research when I have no idea where to start?

Contact a librarian

Seriously.  We want to help you.

If you'd like to reach out to your faculty member's dedicated library liaison, a listing of liaisions can be found here.

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How do I start my research when given a list of material to find?

If your professor has already located a number of sources for you to retrieve and review, follow the steps below to locate the material.


  1. Check our catalog (FULLPAC) to determine whether we have a copy of that book.  Record the call number (or text it to yourself!) and locate the book either in "Stacks" (Maloney Library - law school building) or "Quinn Annex".   If the book is listed as "Stacks", you can go pull it off the shelf and check it out yourself.
  2. If the location of your book is "Quinn Annex", please speak with someone at the Circulation Desk who will have the book paged for you.  Once it is delivered, you can check it out or consult it in the library.
  3. If you do not find a record for the book in FULLPAC, check the Fordham University catalog.  If it is listed as being held at the "Quinn - Lincoln Center" library, record that call number and proceed to the Quinn Library to obtain it yourself; if it is listed as being at "Rose Hill" or "Westchester" you need to submit an ILL request for it.
  4. If the Fordham University Libraries do not have a copy either, submit an ILL request for it.


  2. Determine the title of the journal which the article appears in.  This is the title which you will search in our system.   Also ask yourself whether it sounds like a law-related journal, or a non-law related journal.
  3. If it sounds like a law-related journal, use the Fordham Law Library's Journal List to determine if and how we have access to it.  If we have this journal in our collection, you will see a number of links to different databases such as Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline, JSTOR, and others giving you a direct link to that journal's collection within those larger databases.  Also be sure to check the listed coverage dates to determine whether your article is covered in that range.
  4. If it sounds like a non-law related journal, use Fordham University Libraries' Journal List and follow the steps as described in #2.
  5. If it appears in neither, now you can Google it to see if it is available in a free resource.
  6. If it does not appear in Google, in Fordham Law's collection, or Fordham University's collection, submit an ILL request for it.

* If the article was recently published (past 1-5 years) in a student-edited law journal, there is a good chance you can get it in PDF form from the journal's website via Google.  However, there are so many exceptions to this that it is still better to go through the Journal List first for efficiency's sake.

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How do I start my research when given a broad topic to search within?

Use the "Developing a Research Plan" portion of this guide to help prepare yourself for the search.  Only when you have identified a solid list of relevant keywords should you begin searching the following sources:


The best place to look for books on a topic is our catalog, FULLPAC Discovery.  You can refine your initial keyword search by using the facets on the left-hand side of the results screen - for example, you can easily limit to only books published before 1970 by selecting "Books" under Format, and using 1970 as the date under "Date Published". FULLPAC Classic contains the same information, but more easily allows you to search by field -- i.e., title, author, call number.

Many of you will be asked to search for non-law books; to do this, you will need to search the Fordham University Libraries catalog.  Please consult the "How do I request material from a different library?" section for more information on how to obtain material from Fordham University Libraries.

When using the catalogs, remember to use the helpful subject/descriptor headings to locate additional material on the same topic -- these will always appear hyperlinked in the catalog record.  The words used to describe a book in a catalog may be different than the keywords you thought of, so subject/descriptor headings can be extremely useful in refining your searches to locate additional material.


The best way to locate journal articles on a certain topic is to use an index, NOT full-text searching!  Indexes are more valuable and important to scholarly research because they allow you to search ALL journals on a topic instead of just the ones Lexis, Westlaw, JSTOR, etc. subscribe to.  Also, they are indexed by a human so they will have relevant subject headings attached to them which can help you locate and identify additional articles on the same topic.  Remember, when searching an index you can only search the title, author, subject headings and, if there is on, the abstract, so run very basic searches in the index -- it is different than searching full text!

Some Fordham Law subscription indexes you should consult are:

If you are researching a non-legal issue, try Academic Search Complete (Fordham University subscription database), which is essentially a giant index that extends across all disciplines.

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How do I request material from a different library?

Fordham Law Library has an extensive collection of legal materials, however, from time to time  your research may require material we do not own.  The Interlibrary Loan (ILL) department will attempt to obtain this material from another institution.  The system we use to submit requests to have books and journal articles not included in our collection is called Law ILLiad.  It is very important that you submit all your requests through the Law Library's interlibrary loan system; when in doubt, go to the law library's homepage and click "Interlibrary Loan" to ensure you are using the correct system.


You can request any book or journal article that we do not have in our collection.  Prior to making a request through ILL please check the the title of the book  in the Fordham University Law School Catalog and the Fordham University Catalog , or the title of the journal the article appears in against our Journal List and the University's Journal List to see if the material is owned by one of the Fordham libraries. 

What you may request through ILLiad:

  • Books from other libraries outside of Fordham University;
  • Books from the Fordham University Libraries at the Bronx and Westchester Campus;
  • Articles in journals that either the Law School or the University library does not subscribe to.

What you should not request through ILLiad:

  • Books located in the Law Library.
  • Books from the Quinn Library (the Fordham University Library at the Lincoln Center Campus) - you can check books out from the Quinn with your own Fordham ID, or with your RA card if you have borrowing privileges under your Professor's name.
  • Articles available through free online sources (i.e. SSRN, Google Scholar, law school journals' own website)


Request books and articles for your faculty member through their RA Law ILLiad account.  Gain access to a RA ILLiad account via the following steps:

  • Step 1:  Email and ask for access to your professor’s ILLiad RA Account.  Please estimate how long you will be a RA in the email.  You will receive an email reply with your faculty member’s RA account information.
  • Step 2:  Logon to your faculty’s Law ILLiad RA Account via the Law Library’s Web page using the Username and Password provided in the responding email.  You may also access the Law ILLiad logon screen directly here.
  • Step 3:  Scroll down to Review Personal Information and click Change Password.  Create a password of your own and then click Submit Information.

Once you have access to ILLiad, request items in the following format:

  • If you are requesting a book, click on the "Request a Book" link and fill in at a minimum the following information:
    • Title
    • Author
    • Year/edition
    • ISBN if at all possible (without dashes or spaces)
    • OCLC accession number if known
    • If Fordham University has a copy of it, include that in the "notes" field
  • If you are requesting an article, click on the "Request a Photocopy" link and fill in at a minimum the following information:
    • Title of the Journal in which the article appears
    • Volume number of the journal in which your article appears
    • Page range of the article
    • Year article appeared
    • Article's author
    • Article's title
    • ISSN, once again if possible and without dashes or spaces
    • OCLC accession number if known

Please note that books requested through a RA Law ILLaid account will be delivered to your professor’s office.  Please make arrangements with you professor if you need to see the books. You may also create an ILLiad account of your own.  But DO NOT transfer any books requested under your account to your professor.

You are responsible for all material charged out to your account, so do not give ILL material to anyone else - if your professor wants to have it, request the item under your professor's RA ILLIad account.

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How do I find statistics, data, and/or datasets?

Please also feel free to reach out to our empirical legal research specialist, Alissa Black-Dorward.

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How do I find tax-related information?

These slides were prepared in 2015 by our former Reference Librarian, Sarah Jaramillo.  Please also feel free to reach out to our current tax research specialist, Gail McDonald, for more information.

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How do I find international resources?

International legal research refers to issues involving the law between nations -- so if your professor asks you to research how different countries behave on a global stage, you will need to perform international legal research.

There are two main types of international law - public and private.   Public international law is that which governs the relations between or among nations, while private international law concerns disputes between private parties in which the laws, jurisdiction or court judgments of more than one jurisdiction or country are implicated.  If your professor wants you to research a topic involving treaties, United Nations, human rights, international courts, or something else that sounds like it would affect a federal government but not individual citizens, it is most likely a public international law issue.  If your professor wants you to research arbitration, international business transactions, or transnational litigation, it is most likely a private international law issue.

For all international law issues, the best place to start is by familiarizing yourself with the topic.  A great source for doing this is the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (FLS subscription database).  Search for your topic in the "quick search" box or browse topics by subject.  Just like the legal encyclopedias you learned about in basic legal research, the Max Planck Encyclopedia provides commentary and analysis on a number of topics and links you to relevant primary sources of law.  Max Planck articles also have helpful bibliographies at the end of each article to point you to other relevant journal articles and books on that topic.

Here are some powerpoints from Professor Shea's Advanced Legal Research: International and Foreign Legal Research class that may be useful:

Please also feel free to reach out to our international legal research specialists, Victor Essien and Alison Shea.

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How do I find foreign laws?

Foreign legal research refers to locating the domestic law of foreign countries.  So, if a professor asks you to research Cambodian laws, you will need to perform foreign legal research.

Comparative legal research refers to comparing laws on a single topic in a number of different jurisdictions.  So, if a professor asks you to research disability laws of Asian countries, you will need to perform comparative legal research which will involve you locating a number of foreign laws on a single topic.

By far, the best sources to start with are Foreign Law Guide (FLS subscription database) and Globalex (free) - simply find your country in either of these sources and read about the history and organization of its legal system, as well as information on key laws in certain topic areas and links to places you can find that country's legal information online.

Here are some powerpoints from Professor Shea's Advanced Legal Research: International and Foreign Legal Reserach class that may be useful:

Please also feel free to reach out to our foreign legal research specialists, Victor Essien and Alison Shea.

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