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RA Survival Guide: Getting Started With Your Research

What is in a Preliminary Analysis?

A good refresher on what comprises a quality preliminary analysis:

  • The key issues
  • The jurisdiction
  • The key facts
  • Search terms
  • A strategy for sources you want to consult

What Search Terms are Actually Helpful?

When you’re trying to think of search terms, consider these categories:

  • People/Parties
  • Places
  • Things
  • Causes of Action
  • Remedies

Legal Research Videos

Remember, the Library has an extensive collection of legal research videos to help you flesh out your research strategy and navigate the sources you will use in legal research:

Legal Research Video Collection

Receiving Your Assignments

When receiving your research assignments it’s helpful to stop and ask questions.  While it can be tough to think of good and insightful questions in the moment, here’s a helpful list of questions that you can ask to set yourself up for success.

•    In what form would you like an answer/what should the deliverable look like?
•    Do you have any examples of research submissions from past RAs that you particularly liked?
•    Has anyone worked on this research question or a similar one before?
•    Do you have any expectations of what I should find?
•    How much time would you like me to dedicate to this/when would you like a deliverable by?
•    Are there any sources you think I should consult for this question; any I should stay away from?

Developing a Research Plan

Once you’ve received your assignment and had a chance to talk with your professor and ask appropriate questions, it’s time to get down to work thinking about the project.  While there’s always the temptation to just jump in and start Googling, this is almost never the best approach to starting your research.  What you should do is take a moment, do some preliminary analysis, and then get to work on developing a plan, a research plan!

A research plan consists of your preliminary analysis and a strategy of what resources you want to consult.  It’s a living document and should stay by your side during your research process.  Once you’ve spent a few minutes and gathered your thoughts you’re then ready to start your research.

For tips on what should be in your preliminary analysis and research plan, check out some of the other boxes on this page.  Also, our video on the 4-Step Legal Research Process should be helpful.

The Research Process

Every research question is different, and you will need to think critically about what you were asked to determine when your research is done.  Sometimes, professors will just ask you to find a case that supports a proposition, some requests will ask for you to “find the law” on a topic, and other requests will ask for more. 

Ask yourself:

  • How long did your professor give you to work on this issue?
  • What deliverable did the professor want?
  • How much material were you expected to find?

Generally, for a legal research issue you should work through the issue using the 4 step legal research process.  Please see the library research video series for a greater discussion of this process. Generally, though, it consists of preliminary analysis, consulting secondary sources, moving on to statutory (and regulatory) materials, before finishing by reviewing case law.

A generic step by step:

  • Perform a preliminary analysis that highlights search terms and secondary sources you should look at.
  • Navigate secondary sources to gain an understanding of the topic and find primary law sources
  • Use primary law sources and annotations within to find increasing amounts of primary sources
    • Citing References and Notes of/to Decisions are powerful tools to navigate statutes and find case law from statutory law
    • The Any Good Case Method allows you to grow your base of case law to more thoroughly understand an issue.
  • Throughout you should always be checking that what you’re finding is “good law” using Shepard’s or KeyCite.

This of course only applies generally.  There are many research requests that will demand some other research planning, some other tools, and some other analysis from you.  These can range from needing to find administrative decisions, legislative histories, and more.  Luckily, the library is always here for when you run into a roadblock or research you’re unfamiliar with!  Turn to the Ask a Librarian tab to find out how to get in touch with us!

Concluding your Research

When you've built up a wealth of research a universal question eventually comes up: "When should I stop?"

It's a difficult question, particularly so when you're still new to legal research.  There's a few ways to know when to stop though and as always, stopping is highly dependent on the question that you were asked.

  • One way to end your research is simply by finding the answer.  If your professor asked a question where there was a terminal answer that you can find in a reasonable time period, you're done!
  • Another key way to tell your research process is finished is the law of diminishing returns.  As you research you'll begin to find the same sources being cited to again and again.  When you start running out of new resources in your searches that's a very good sign you're reaching the end of your research.
  • A less satisfying way to know your research is coming to an end is simply that you're out of time.  You have to be able to turn work product into your professor and you're reaching the end of your time that they've allotted to this project.  Remember you'll also need time to turn your research into whatever deliverable has been asked of you.
    • In this situation you can also either inform the professor there's more research to find or you can briefly skim the extra research you have and write an extra interim report explaining what other resources are out there and how you would plan to do more research if given more time.