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Legal Research for Law Students: Tips for Summer Research

So, your first-year classes are giving you a basic understanding of how law is made; now, how do you find it? This guide is a brief introduction to the sources of law you may be researching and how to access them.

Wondering how to tackle a new research project?

questions

Law Library's Top Ten Tips for Your Summer Research Projects

  1. Start with some free background and some expert advice.
    • First get your bearings in an unfamiliar area of law. Try some free internet searches for background information about legal issues on legal blogs (check out Justia's Blawg Search) and organization's websites (for example, federal agencies' websites, the National Conference of State Legislatures' site, and issue-oriented organizations' sites). Get overviews and insight from experts in the field in treatises, practice guides and law review or bar journal articles. Find a good treatise on the subject you're researching in this list.
  2. Ask questions.
    • Ask the attorneys you’re working with to fill you in on the context of a research assignment, to recommend sources and to let you know about cost constraints.
    • Begin to map out a research strategy by asking yourself what type of information you need to answer your research question (Cases? Statutes? Regulations? A combination? A good secondary source, like a practice guide?).
    • Ask librarians at your firm about research resources specific to your type of project.
    • Still having trouble getting started? Call or email us at the Reference Desk: (434) 924-7465 or lawlibref@virginia.edu.
  3. Learn about your jurisdiction.
    • Make sure you understand the court system, administrative agencies, and legislative bodies that might be involved.
    • Jurisdiction-specific treatises, practice guides, and legal encyclopedias can be a big help. Ask your organization's librarian or a colleague for recommendations. Also check local law school libraries' webpages for jurisdiction-specific research guides.
  4. Start your research in free sources.
    • Google Scholar is great for free case research. Cornell LII and state legislatures' websites are good for free, easy access to statutes. Many federal agencies' websites have lots of regulatory information.
    • Use print resources in your organization's library and on colleagues' shelves.
    • Use the free resources for initial, broad searches, and move to subscription resources once you have narrowed your research goals.
  5. Give yourself time to think about the information you are finding.
    • Pause periodically to remind yourself of the question you were asked to research, and to take stock of the information you are finding. A few extra minutes thinking about your research may make things click.
  6. Make efficient use of subscription databases.
    • Consult your organization’s librarians for the ins-and-outs of their specific subscriptions to databases like Westlaw, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law. Also ask them if there are other resources available that might be even better for your project.
    • Use the databases’ free 1-800 reference attorney help lines.
  7. Look for Advanced Search screens.
    • Getting results that aren’t quite right in your initial searches?Advanced search tools like proximity connectors and term frequency help you find what you need more easily. Look for databases' links to advance search screens and to search "help" guides.
  8. Update your sources.
    • Shepardize or Keycite cases and statutes to check for appeals to higher courts, citations in subsequent cases and recently passed legislation.
    • Build on the relevant cases, statutes, or regulations in your initial search results by checking out sources listed in Westlaw's citing references tab and Lexis' Shepard's report.
  9. Keep track of your research trail (sources you’ve checked, searches you’ve run, whether you’ve updated the law). Organize documents as you find them.
    • Organizing your research prevents you from wasting time duplicating your efforts. It also helps you think through alternative research approaches when you're stuck.
    • Use the Westlaw and Lexis Advance folders to organize your research findings.
  10. No drafts.
    • Make every communication of your research results the best representation of the work you were able to do with the time and information you had. That includes emails and live meetings.
    • Give yourself time to carefully proofread your written work before turning it in.