Saturday, May 17, 2008

How To Improve Your Research Skills

Lawyers often complain that law school did not teach them how to be lawyers. Maybe it taught them how to do research, how to write, but not how to practice law. The fact is, we lawyers don’t know how to research, how to really research, until we leave law school and start practicing. Research for law school briefs and moot court competitions is not the same as when everything is on the line and the outcome depends on the cases you find. As you hone your research skills to find that much sought after case, consider the following:

Understand the issue you are researching. Before you run off to the library, make sure you know the issue you are researching. This is an obvious point, but how many of us have gone back to the partner only to find out we were going down the wrong path. It’s better to risk looking foolish by asking questions when you first get an assignment rather than guarantee looking foolish by wasting two hours in the library.

Know the facts of the case. Don’t settle for knowing what issue to research. You need context. Find out all the facts of your case, so that when you start researching you know what fact patterns to look for in the cases you read.

Ask around. Before you run off to the library or jump on Westlaw, ask other associates if they have done the same research. Perhaps your office has a document management system in place such as Imanage that allows you to search all office memos for key words. Such a search may pull up a memo identical to the one you were about to prepare.

Go from general to specific. Before you start researching cases and statutes, read through treatises to obtain an overview of the subject matter you are researching. This overview will help put into context the cases you find which address your issue.

Use the right tools. Rely on the correct tools to get the job done. There is a plethora of treatises and reference books out there. If you have any sway in what books your law firm buys, ask for the leading reference books that apply to your field.

Use key numbers. Once you have read through the relevant legal articles and treatises, it is time to start looking up cases and statutes. If you’re a new attorney, chances are you do all your research on Westlaw. If that’s the case, become accustomed to doing key number searches. Westlaw has taken every legal issue imaginable, and has assigned it a key number. Click on the key number that references your issue and up pops every headnote in every case addressing that issue. By doing this, you can feel assured that you have found every case on point.

Find cases involving your jurisdiction. Make sure you have found all the relevant cases in your jurisdiction.

Find cases involving your Judge. Even more important than finding a case in your jurisdiction is finding a case involving your judge. Do a word search for your judge’s name and see what cases you come up with. See when his opinions have been upheld and when they have been overturned.

Lean on a Westlaw representative. If you use Westlaw, you have access to hundreds of research attorneys whose only job is to help you find the cases you want. When your research isn’t producing fruit, don’t be shy to pick up the phone and ask a Westlaw representative for some help.

Chase the rabbit. During your research, you may find a few cases that address your issue. Don’t stop there. What other cases do those cases cite? Look them up and read them. What cases cite the cases you found? Look them up and read them. Keep doing this until you have reviewed every case addressing your issue. Don’t be satisfied until you’ve gone down every rabbit hole.

Take your time. Good research takes time. It takes time to read treatises and law review articles. It takes time to read cases, to key cite them and to read those cases. Take the time. It can be the difference between a winning and losing motion.

At first glance, research seems simple enough. That is, until that case your boss insists is out there, the one he read in the advance sheets six months ago, becomes elusive. Then, you have to muster all these skills to track that case down.

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