There’s no way to sugar-coat it—legal research can be scary. (Even law students will back me up on that one.) Even if you’ve never stepped foot in the Law Library, follow the steps below to get a jump on your research.
Step One: See blog post title
Step Two: Consider your Topic
As with any other subject, if your legal research topic is too broad, your results are going to overwhelm you. Interested in the First Amendment? Prepare to be buried. It’s the equivalent of saying that you want to research World War II. If possible, try to narrow down your topic with what you know. Don’t know what you know? Not a problem…
Step Three: Double Check the Assignment Details
Your professor may have given you a couple of instructions to narrow down your search. Reread the assignment instructions and look to see if there’s any mention of:
- Case Law or Statutes: In the legalverse, case law and statutes are our primary sources. If you need to find case law, that means you’re looking for opinions that were issued from courts. If you need to find a statute, that means you need to find the law that came from the legislature. Both case law and statutes are explained through secondary sources such as treatises (books that explain a particular area of law in depth), legal encyclopedias (think the legalverse’s answer to Wikipedia), and law review articles.
- Jurisdiction: The American legal system is complicated. There are a lot of different courts and a variety of different legislatures. But if you know where the law you’re interested in came from, that can help narrow your search. Did your professor mention the Supreme Court of the United States? Or that you only need to be concerned with New York law? Those are ways to cut down the results.
- Parties: Think about the people affected by the law you’re researching. Is there a particular group that you’re going to be writing about? Students? Teachers? Prisoners? If you know that you are trying to find something about journalists and the First Amendment, you’ll run a better search.
Step Four: Think Basic
What do you do when you don’t know something? The answers I hear most often are either Google it or go to Wikipedia. We’ve got a legal equivalent. Legal encyclopedias—American Jurisprudence, for example—provide a quick overview to different areas of law. You can read an entry and find direction towards more resources, like another entry or law review articles. American Jurisprudence is available online through LexisNexis Academic or in print at the Law Library.
Step 5: Don’t be Afraid to Piggy-Back
Legal scholars don’t just like to footnote—they love it. So if you find an article on your topic, congrats, you just struck research gold. Check the footnotes and you’ll find the different statutes, cases, and articles the author used for his or her research. Don’t be afraid to use those sources to direct your research. You can find law review articles through LexisNexis Academic, JSTOR, or legal specific databases such as HeinOnline and Legal Trac.
Once again, I cannot stress enough—don’t panic. If following these steps doesn’t work for you, the reference librarians at the Law Library are more than happy to help. Just stop by—or call, email, and IM—the reference desk. For the sanity of all involved, it’s probably best to do that at least a week before the assignment is due.