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Legal Research

Fundamentals of Legal Research

Starting your research . . .

New legal researchers often sidestep research planing and immediately go to Google or an online database for keyword searching. Instead take a contemplative pause before plunging forward, and try this simplified structure as a template that remains flexible.

contemplative pause = THINK FIRST!

Five Step Legal Research Process

1.   Begin the legal research process with a PROBLEM ANALYSIS. Then ask yourself - how much do you know? Unless you are an expert in the field, your strategy should start with background materials.

Use a worksheet to plan your search! It's downloadable!

2..   Unless you have a case or code citation, start with SECONDARY SOURCES to learn some background on the subject matter.

  • Has a legal expert already researched your topic?
  • Are there organizations that research this subject? 
  • Is the source timely, relevant, authoritaive, and unbiased? Will it pass the CRAAP test to evaluate for currency, relevance, authoritativeness, accuracy,  and prejudice (or point of view)?
  • Do the secondary sources suggest primary sources?

3.   Next, determine what PRIMARY SOURCES govern the subject (legislation or case law).

  • Are there state or federal statutes that govern the subject? (e.g., U.S. Code, Maine Revised Statutes)
  • Are there state or federal administrative regulations that govern your topic? (Maine Administrative Code/CFR)
  • Is there case law that would answer your question?
  • Is there a state or federal agency or department that has helpful information?

4.   ASK: How do you know if you are done?

  • Have you found the answer to your question?
  • Do you keep seeing the same results?

5.   VERIFY & UPDATE (using Shepard's/Keycite/BCite) to make sure your primary sources are current and accurate.

Legal research mindmap

What does the legal research process feel like? Click on this:


More on Problem Analysis

How do you answer a legal question? Start by analyzing the problem!

Identify the people, places, things, actions, and issues:

  • what role(s) do the people have?
  • what issues are related to those roles?
  • where will the activity take place?
  • what actions will occur?
  • where will the actions take place?
  • what terms describe the situations?
  • what legal terms describe the situations?

Use the method recommended by your LRW professor (e.g., IRAC, CRAC, TARP)

While you are asking these questions, you should be thinking about search terms.


Using worksheets

How do you keep track of your research? Try using the worksheet on the next page.