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Legal Research Strategies

The following is one suggested approach to doing legal research. Eventually, you may develop your own strategy as you become more competent at conducting legal research and more knowledgeable about the law.

Step One: Preliminary Analysis

  • Secondary sources are materials about the law (as opposed to primary sources, material that is the law).
  • Secondary sources help familiarize you with a particular area of the law.
  • Secondary sources will lead you to primary sources and save time.
  • Someone else has already done the work ‑ why reinvent the wheel? Ask an expert.

Step Two: Formulate Issue Statement(s) (questions for which you are seeking legal answers)

  • Identify the facts (who, what, where, when and why)
  • Identify the legal concepts (legal theory, relief sought, procedural posture)
  • Identify research terms (use legal dictionaries and legal thesauri)
  • Frame the question(s)
  • Be prepared to change your issue statement(s) as more is learned.

Step Three: Check for Statutory Authority (Primary Source)

  • Identify any controlling statutes (never assume the absence of relevant legislation!)
  • Identify any court opinions (case law) that may construe relevant statutes
  • Remember that secondary sources may help you identify controlling statutes

Step Four: Check for Case Law (Primary Source)

  • A lower court in your jurisdiction is bound to follow the rule of law decided by a higher court in the same jurisdiction in a similar case. Only decisions from the same jurisdiction are binding on a lower court, or mandatory authority.

  • Decisions from courts in other jurisdictions are not binding and need not be followed. A decision which is not binding in a jurisdiction is called persuasive authority.

  • Remember that secondary sources may lead you to relevant cases.

Step Five: Update Research

  • Verify that what you have found is still good law.
  • Identify new developments.

A Few Good Research Tips

  • Research separable questions separately (if you have more than one issue, research them individually)
  • Double check your work in all sources to be sure that you have not missed anything
  • Keep a good record of your research. List what you found and where you found it.