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RA Survival Guide: Getting Started With Your Research

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?

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.

When is Your Research 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 legalresearch 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