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Legal Research Tips for Your Summer Work: Recommended Research Process

The Four-Step Research Process

The Four-Step Research Process is:

  1. Preliminary Analysis
  2. Secondary Sources
  3. Statutes & Regulations
  4. Case Law

The Preliminary Analysis should always be performed first. After the Preliminary Analysis, depending on the information available to you, you may start in any of the three following steps. For example, if you are provided with a citation to a statute or regulation, you can start in Step 3 and use the tools of the annotated code to finding Secondary Sources and Case Law. If have a case citation, you can read the case and start with Step 3  or 4 depending on whether it is a statutory or common law issue. Then, use the tools to find secondary sources. 

There are videos for many aspects of the four-step research process. They are linked below in the Video Tutorials box. 


If you have any questions, reach out to a reference librarian for assistance by:



Video Tutorials

The Maloney Library maintains an extensive collection of video tutorials on many of the topics covered in this guide. 

Video Tutorials

Step 1. Preliminary Analysis

While it may seem counterintuitive to spend time analyzing your issue before jumping into your research, in the long run this makes your research process more efficient as it helps you focus your research in specific legal topics and develop meaningful search terms. Some of the questions you should ask before starting include:

  1. What jurisdictions are relevant and/or produce mandatory authority? You can use this to limit you searches to those jurisdictions.
  2. Is there a legal relationship between the parties? For example, an employer/employee relationship may give rise to certain legal responsibilities.
  3. What are you being asked to research? Defining a research question will assist you in staying on course and avoiding rabbit holes. You are encouraged to write down a research question. It is common to have more than one research question or to develop sub-questions as you learn more about your issue. 
  4. What are the relevant facts? 
  5. What areas of law may be implicated? (e.g., negligence, contracts) Sometimes you may be told and other times you might need to determine this on your own.
  6. List known legal information. For example, your assigning partner may have mentioned a useful secondary source, case, news article, statute or regulation. These can all be great starting points for research.

Now, develop search terms based on your answers in the preliminary analysis. Search terms can include:

  1. Relevant factual information including relationships and places.
  2. Relevant legal terms including areas of law, terms of art (e.g. fair use), procedural terms, and actions by the parties (e.g. drunk driving). 
  3. Be sure to consider synonyms especially for concepts that may be presented in different terms (e.g. drunk driving or driving under the influence).

Having gathered all of the above information, you can perform directed searches for statutes, regulations, and cases. 

Step 2. Secondary Sources

Starting with a resource other than primary law may feel counterintuitive, but starting with a secondary source will almost always be more efficient than starting with primary sources. 

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources provide an overview of a legal topic or issue and support that discussion with citations to relevant primary sources (i.e., statutes, cases, regulations).

Why should you use a secondary source?

If you are unfamiliar with an area of law, the overview will assist you in building foundational knowledge, identifying relevant search terms, and providing citations to relevant primary sources. 

How do I use a secondary source?

Besides building foundational knowledge of a legal topic or issue, secondary sources provide citations to relevant primary sources. You can use those citations to begin reviewing statutes, regulations, and cases. 

Where to find secondary sources?

Secondary sources can be found in Bloomberg Law, Lexis, Westlaw, in print in the Maloney Library, in your firm's library, and online. 

Common types of secondary sources:

Step 3. Statutes & Regulations

Approaching a statutory or regulatory legal research problem

Statutes and regulations are generally codified meaning they are organized by topic. When approaching a statutory or regulatory legal issue, I recommend the following steps:

  1. Read the statutory or regulatory language in an annotated code.
  2. Browse the surrounding statutory sections to determine if other sections may also be relevant. 
  3. Make sure the statute or regulation is still good law. 
  4. Use the annotated code to find a secondary source that provides analysis and background on the statutory or regulatory language, and explains the case law interpreting the statutory or regulatory language. Research tip: note any cases that are relevant to your legal issue.
  5. If you are researching a statute, determine if there are any related regulations by looking in the annotated code or the Parallel Table of Authorities
  6. Read case law interpreting your statute or regulation. You can find these in the annotated code's Notes of/to Decisions (Lexis or Westlaw) or the secondary source.  
What is an annotated code?

An annotated code provides citations to cases that have construed the statutory or regulatory language, collects secondary sources that discuss the statute or regulation and relevant cases, and citations to regulations that are promulgated under the authority of the statute or regulation, or are otherwise related.

Why should I use an annotated code?

Essentially, the annotated code gathers multiple types of legal materials that will help you understand the law in a single place where you can start your research. This means you do not need to run keyword searches once you have a citation to a statute or regulations.

Where to find annotated codes?

Annotated codes are created by publishers using the official statutory language and then an editorial team links and cross-references related cases, secondary sources, regulations.

Because a publisher is involved, most annotated codes are only available on paid databases. The most prominent federal statutory and regulatory codes are on Lexis and Westlaw. Annotated state statutory codes are available on both Lexis and Westlaw. The availability of annotated state regulatory codes varies and Lexis and/or Westlaw may have annotated state regulatory codes. 

How do I use an annotated code?

In Westlaw, the annotated code is encapsulated in the tabs across the top of the page.

In Lexis, the annotated code is encapsulated to the left of the statutory or regulatory language.

Step 4. Case Law

Whether you are provided with a citation to a case, or find a citation in a secondary source or annotated code, you should follow these steps:

  1. Read the case to ensure that the case is relevant to your issue(s). Completing the preliminary analysis will help with this assessment. If can also review the Headnotes that appear before the opinion language on both Lexis and Westlaw. 
  2. Make sure you case is still good law. 
  3. Once you have a case that is relevant and still good law, you can use a series of finding tools to find additional relevant cases - this is called the One Good Case Method or, as I like to call it, the Good Enough Case Method.
The One Good Case Method

Do not let the name fool you; you will likely run the One Good Case Method on multiple cases. Why? Because there is rarely a perfect court opinion that exactly matches our issues. Your job is to take similar cases, analogize them to your issue, and argue those similar cases should apply. Let's look at the finding tools used in the One Good Case Method (videos: Lexis, Westlaw).


Headnotes are the legal principles from the case as identified by editors, and they can help us find other cases with the same legal principles. They allow us to look both backward and forward in time for cases. Headnotes are secondary materials, and we do not cite them.  

Key Numbers

In Westlaw, Headnotes are usually assigned at least one key number. The key numbers create a giant, granular outline of legal principles found in case law. Using key numbers, we can find cases that discuss the same legal principle, not only in our jurisdiction, but in other jurisdictions. They also allow us to look at other related cases regardless of whether the case was decided before our one good case or after, and to find cases that do not cite to our one good case.

Citing References or Citators

Citators are tools that collect materials that cite back to a case for any reason. For the purposes of the One Good Case Method, we use citators to identify other cases that cite back to our case for a legal principle from a headnote. In other words, cases that were decided after our one good case and rely on our one case for some purpose.

Table of Authorities

The Table of Authorities is a listing of all the cases cited in the good case. In other words, all the cases relied upon to support the court's opinion. Reviewing these cases allows us to look backward at older precedents that may include seminal cases or cases with similar facts as our legal issue. The easiest method for determining if these cases will assist your research is to read your good case and review the cases cited by the court to support their opinion.