Legal research is an art as well as a skill. It calls for judgment and creativity along with mastery of a set of tools and techniques. Each research question will have a different starting point, process, and conclusion. The most important thing a researcher should understand that there is never one right path. Researchers choosing different paths for the same research question may be equally successful. Every research project will include false starts, dead ends, and revisions in the initial stage. Legal research is never finished, but a good experienced researcher recognizes when to stop.
Five important steps to perform legal research
Understand the assignment.
Understand the problem.
Define topic and find relevant information.
Update the research topic.
Know when to stop.
The starting point of research depends on the nature of the issue, how it is presented to the researcher, and the researchers experience. It may be a fact pattern, a subject, an issue, a case, or a statute. At the outset, the researcher must determine if the research will be exclusively in case law or if there are statutes or regulations that should be explored. It is also important to determine whether the research will be primarily in federal law or state law, or both.
Research often begins with a fact pattern. We might be given an on-point case or statute, but seldom will the facts of the research question fit squarely with the facts of other cases or the language of the statute. A client relates a narrative for which he feels wronged but has no legal theory to justify or deny compensation. This is when our legal training will come into play. It is extremely difficult for someone untrained in the law to translate a fact pattern into a legal theory of recovery or defense. Legal resources are seldom organized by facts; they are organized by legal theory. It is needful to identify terms of art that might apply to this situation.
The parameters of research may later have to be broadened, tightened, or shifted, but it is reassuring to start out with a map of the area that will be explored. The initial thinking about the legal issues presented by a particular set of facts is likely to change as there is more learning about an area of the law. Remain flexible. Once the relevant terms of art and black letter law become familiar, one should be able to articulate the issue more precisely.
While using databases like Westlaw or Lexis Nexis for Legal Research, doing a full text search can be an ineffective use of time and clients money, especially when the researching area is unfamiliar. Secondary sources are a better place to start the research. They have general information about most Legal topics and they cite useful and relevant primary materials, such as cases and statutes.
Once the research is complete, next task is to isolate the most relevant articles, cases, statutes, and key numbers that were found by different methods of research and which cross reference one another. The final step is to write a persuasive memorandum or brief that can be either IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion) form or any other easy to use format as per clients requirement.
Every research process will differ. One could have competently explored more or less legal resources depending on what is at stake and the time and money available.