I found that during my legal research class for my paralegal degree that the class was split into two separate camps: those that loved legal research and those that hated legal research. I fell somewhere in between the two sides because I did not love legal research but I would never allow my GPA to fall below my perfect standards for myself by blowing off a class I did not enjoy. However, because legal research is a central element of most paralegal jobs, I knew that I must not only learn this skill but that I must master it as well.
Sadly, I never learned to love legal research but throughout my years as a paralegal, I have learned several tips, strategies and resources that make performing legal research easier and less frustrating than it was 25 years ago when I first began rifling through hundreds of legal volumes in the law library. In fact, one of the most significant tools that a paralegal possesses today with regard to legal research is the power of the internet.
Most paralegals never set foot in a law library to perform legal research because most information is now available electronically. Computerized subscription services such as Lexis and Westlaw make it very easy to perform legal research by cataloging, indexing, cross-indexing and providing other tools that make finding the statutes and case law that you need more efficient and less time consuming. You can also locate free resources for legal research by searching online (i.e. various court websites, law schools, legal associations, etc.).
However, regardless of how you choose to perform your legal research, a paralegal should know all of the various sources to consult for different types of information that will be used by the attorneys to either prove or defend the claims that are of issue in the case. This leads us to our first tip for performing legal research: define the issues to be researched and determine your research goals.
Defining the Legal Issue
You cannot perform valid, timely and relevant legal research if you do not understand the legal issues at question in the case. In order to determine the legal issues, you must examine the facts and circumstances of the case. A good paralegal will follow the steps of D.I.S.P.U.T.E. to define the legal issues of the case in order to prepare to begin her legal research.
- Did you identify all of the relevant parties involved in the case? It is very important to know as much about each party as you begin your legal research because the identities (including lifestyle, occupation, etc.) of the parties often have a direct impact on the case.
- Is the location important? Where did the events take place? The location could raise other issues in the case such as is a third party (i.e. landowner) also liable for the plaintiff’s damages. On the other hand, could the conditions of the location at the time of the event work to mitigate the defendant’s liability.
- Some items or objects may be important to the case. For example, if a person used an object that was left unattended by the owner of that object to harm an individual or to commit a crime, you may be able to bring the owner in as a defendant if he had a duty to secure the item.
- Put the events in chronological order. Having a detailed, chronological list each event in the case.
- Understanding the events will give you the basis of action or the issues that are involved in the case. This is a crucial step because if you do not understand the legal claims or the issues involved in the action or lawsuit, you will not be able to provide relevant legal research to assist the attorney.
- Take into consideration the opposing counsel’s arguments in the case. As you perform your legal research, you should be searching for laws and case law that will refute any legal basis the opposing party may claim to support his or her allegations.
- Evaluate the legal remedy or the relief sought in the case. As a plaintiff, you must prove you are entitled to the relief you are seeking through statutes and/or case law. As the defendant, you want to find a legal basis for the court to deny the plaintiff’s relief.
Tips and Strategies for Conducting Legal Research
The first and most important step you must take when you are preparing to do legal research for a case is to understand the question that you are researching. If you do not understand the legal issue, you may spend hours researching a question only to realize that it does not directly relate to your case. Therefore, it is vital that you take time going through the DISPUTE steps until you arrive at the legal issues involved with your case. Only then can you begin to delve into legal research to prove your client’s claims.
Other tips that help paralegals perform relevant and efficient legal research include:
➢ Use both primary and secondary sources – Some paralegals prefer to begin with primary sources (i.e. statues, case law and judicial orders) while others begin with secondary sources (i.e. legal encyclopedias, legal periodicals, practice manuals, etc.). It does not matter which one you begin with as long as your research both sources. Both provide valuable information that can support your client’s claims. In fact, secondary sources will often analyze, explain and critique an area of law and then provide you with the specific citations to the primary law.
➢ Never stop researching until you submit the assignment. If you have time then you have time to research. The idea here is to encourage paralegals to never cut corners in legal research and to always being working until the last minute to insure that they did not miss a vital piece of research that would seriously impact the case.
➢ Always use Shepard’s to double-check all case law. You need to be absolutely sure that your case was not overturned, reversed or remanded. You must have “good law” to support your case because you can be sure the opposing counsel with Shepardize each of your cases to make sure they have not been overturned and to see if there is any case law that directly contradicts the position of the judge in your case law.
➢ Be familiar with the sources you are using – If you fail to familiarize yourself with your sources, you may not notice that the case digest you were using that said “1981 to Present” was not the most current digest (it was current in 2001 when it was published). Taking time to learn about your sources will help you avoid costly mistakes.
➢ Use computerized legal research – This is a great way to find sources that you may not have at your local law library as well as to keep updating your research results using citators until you hand in your brief and legal research to your attorney. Do not forget to check websites for state and federal courts, government agencies, law schools and bar associations during your legal research. They can be a great source of both primary and secondary legal resources.
Some paralegals swear that excellent legal research abilities are a gift; however, I am proof that they can also be learned if you are willing to be patient and put forth the time and effort to learn the resources to use and to review the case details until you determine the issues you need to research.