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Legal Research Basics: A Step-By-Step Guide to Brushing Up on Your Skills

November 18, 2022 (7 min read)

Legal research is imperative to the practice of law. Depending on where you are in your legal career, there could be multiple reasons to brush up on the basics of legal research. You could be a: 

  • Law student or recent graduate preparing for your career 
  • Seasoned attorney aiming to brush up on the basics amidst ever-evolving legal research technology 
  • Growing law firm preparing to train new attorneys or paralegals 

Regardless of which of these categories you align with most, reviewing the basics of legal research should become regular practice. After all, the importance of legal research cannot be overstated – pinpointing the best facts and knowledge for your case can make the difference between winning and losing.  

Use this article to review the basics and set yourself (and your firm) up for success. First, we’ll define legal research and its components. Then, we’ll walk you through a step-by-step process for conducting superior legal research. Finally, we’ll close with recommendations for tools that can help you become both an accurate and efficient legal researcher – which ultimately equips you with a reputation for success in the courtroom.  

What is Legal Research?

Legal research is defined as the process of identifying and retrieving information necessary to support legal decision-making. There are multiple reasons you might conduct legal research: 

  • To find “good” case law that backs up your motion or brief  
  • To provide legal counsel to clients  
  • To provide a memo or brief for class (law students only)  
  • To identify case law that refutes an opposing argument 
  • To support the over-arching narrative of your case 

What is the Importance of Legal Research?

Legal research provides support for decision-making on complex issues, by providing specific facts and legal precedent that allow you to produce complete answers for clients. Quality legal research is critical to the practice of law.

Historically, attorneys combed through books and libraries for the perfect facts, cases, and issues; now, technology has largely replaced this process. While the prominence of ever-evolving technology has made the process more efficient (and, in many ways, easier), the sheer number of products and options available can be overwhelming.  

The Legal Research Process

Understanding that the legal research process can be overwhelming and time-consuming, we’ve broken the legal research process down into three key steps: 

  1. Understand the facts of your case 
  2. Gather sources of law 
  3. Check your citations for “good” law 

Each of these steps is detailed below, alongside a quick-view checklist.  

Step 1: Record the Facts of Your Case and Create a Research Plan 

Handling a legal task with authority requires confidence in the process. This is true in any practice, jurisdictional setting, or level of legal expertise. A good process should start by taking time to identify and understand the facts of your case. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What is the legal issue at hand?  
  • What are the details of the case?  
  • What jurisdiction is most relevant?  
  • Do you need state or federal case law? 

Record your facts in a case management tool before beginning – this can help you develop a course of action and narrow down where to start your research. While it may be tempting to skip this step, a commitment to this process saves you time in the long run by helping you efficiently juggle multiple clients. Not to mention, you will likely need what you’ve recorded to file a motion or brief. 

With the facts of the case recorded, you can begin your research. Because this will help you develop a plan for gathering your sources, we will briefly discuss creating a research plan before moving on to Step 2.  

Did you know? LexisNexis boasts a collection of state case law superior to its leading competitors. Easily filter by jurisdiction before or after your search. 

Creating a Research Plan 

Review the facts you recorded to determine what information you will need to build your case. When legal research first moved online, many attorneys felt the need to start with a free service like Google to identify terms of art before conducting a search in a legal research platform. However, this is no longer necessary. Research platforms like Lexis+ allow you to start your search with a natural language search or question and equip you to quickly comb both primary and secondary sources. Litigators, specifically, can use Fact and Issue Finder – integrated directly with Lexis+ – to help quickly identify the best terms of art for their search.  

Creating your research plan is less about planning where you will search and more about planning what you will search. You know your research can be conducted on one, fully integrated platform. So, what questions will you ask to get started? What legal issues do you need more information about? What filters will you need (jurisdiction, time period, etc.)?  

Once you know what you will search for, you are ready to gather sources.  

Step 2: Gather Sources of Law 

The next step in your process is to gather relevant sources of law. Below, we detail the difference between primary law and secondary law. Importantly, when gathering sources, start with secondary law materials. This helps ensure you are up-to-speed on what experts have to say about a topic before you begin your case law search. Why does this matter? Think about it as building your knowledge base before crafting an argument – you’ll be less likely to make mistakes and more inclined to spot case-winning primary law.  

What are Secondary Sources of Law? 

Secondary legal sources are materials that describe or interpret the law. They are educational resources that provide analysis of the law. These documents are cited by attorneys to persuade a court to reach a particular decision in a case, but which the court is not obligated to follow. Start with secondary sources to learn from legal experts that have already explored a given topic.  

Secondary sources may include: 

  • Practice guides 
  • Legal treatises 
  • Law review articles 
  • Scholarly journals 
  • Legal news 
  • Jury instructions 
  • Legal dictionaries and encyclopedias 

What are Primary Sources of Law? 

A primary legal source is a formal document officially issued by the government that establishes the law on a particular matter, such as a case decision or legislative act. Primary sources are the law. This is the most authoritative step in the legal research process. You can support arguments with primary sources as they are not only authoritative, but precedential and controlling.  

Your primary sources may include: 

  • Case law (federal and/or state) 
  • Orders 
  • Decisions 
  • Statutes and regulations 
  • Constitutions  
  • Treatises 

Step 3: Check to See If You’re Using Good Law  

The final step in your research process should include a final check to ensure you have used “good” law – this means you are using case law that has been treated positively in court (as opposed to case law that has been overturned or brought into question). 

Check your case citations as you collect them, especially since legal research software can allow a quick view of how your case has been treated in court directly from your search results. However, it is best practice to review your citations once your research process is complete to check for any gaps, changes, or oversights.  

Read more about using good law and the process of "Shepardizing."

Conduct Winning Legal Research 

Following this three-step process ensures you’re taking the right measures to find the most accurate, relevant and valuable data to achieve your objectives. Now that you’re ready to conduct winning legal research, take some time to review products and tools that can help you in your path to success.  

Getting Started with Legal Research Tools  

Legal research is key to drafting effective documents and building winning cases. Legal research solutions have evolved substantially – helping you conduct legal research with increased efficiency and accuracy. Below is a list of legal research tools to help you build a winning case:  

  • Lexis+: This is the premier LexisNexis fully integrated legal research platform. Features such as Shepard's At Risk ensures you’re citing only the most authoritative sources, with unprecedented visibility into whether a case is at risk of being overruled or undermined. Other Lexis+ features include, but aren’t limited to: 
  • Brief Analysis: Get a clear picture of the contents of your legal brief to identify any missteps and bolster your arguments against opposing counsel. Simply upload and file and quickly evaluate the legal authority cited in your (or an opposing) brief in granular detail and receive recommendations for additional searches.  
  • Litigation Analytics: Get the most accurate insights into judges, courts, attorneys, and law firms to ensure your success in litigation. Understand critical insights regarding caseloads, experience across case types, timing to key milestones, and damages by comparing federal districts and judges. 
  • Shepard's® Citations Service: See if a case has been overturned, reaffirmed, questioned, or cited by later cases, or is at risk of negative treatment. Your research needs to provide precedential value. Using reversed or overruled authority doesn't qualify as "Good Law" and your research may be ineffectual or harmful to your case. 
  • Practical Guidance: View professional insights on 20 different practice areas. Accomplish any task with practice notes, annotated templates, and checklists.  
  • Legal News Hub: Receive up-to-the-minute, award-winning journalism and legal news from Law360 and Law360 Pulse anytime you need it — without having to leave the Lexis+ ecosystem. Stay current on critical developments across legal practice areas, with over 70 coverage areas spanning the practice and business of law. 

LexisNexis is here to support your firm in winning your next case. With Lexis+, all of your legal research needs are integrated into one platform as a true start-to-finish solution. Ready to learn more? Take a guided tour of Lexis+ today. 

Buy Now  Free Lexis+ Access