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Legal Research Fundamentals

Whenever you are given a research problem, it is crucial that you answer this question:

WHAT DO I ULTIMATELY NEED? WHY DO I NEED IT?

You might not immediately be able to identify everything you ultimately will need! It will develop as you do more research. However, in order to keep your research focused and organized, we recommend that you identify the following: 

  • WHO: Who is involved? 
  • WHERE: Where is the activity taking place? What jurisdiction?
  • WHAT: What is occurring? What is the action that you actually care about? 
  • WHEN: When did this take place? If you are involved in a litigation, at what stage is the litigation?
  • WHY: Ultimately, what is the desired outcome? Does someone want money for being harassed at work? Is someone hoping to avoid jail? Do two companies want to work together?
  • HOW: How is the WHY being achieved? A lawsuit? A letter? A joint agreement? A motion? 

You can also use these search terms to brainstorm search keywords. 

When crafting keyword searches, ask yourself:

How would the author use the language? In other words: how would a judge write the opinion you are looking for? What words would they use? In what different permutations might they occur? How close to one another would the words be? 

What other fields will help narrow my searching? If you have been asked to find a case written by a particular judge, or within a particular jurisdiction, or during a certain time period, narrow your fields to reflect those limiters. 

Not sure where to start?

What if you have no idea how to locate something, or begin to tackle a problem? There are a few places that might help!

  1. Research Guides. If you know the area of law, starting with a research guide cannot hurt. A good research guide will point you in the direction of good background resources, the preeminent treatises, practice guides, etc. It will also often tell you useful databases or websites for locating certain types of material. Biddle has research guides on a variety of subjects. To locate other research guides, Google [area of law] + "research guide." 
  2. Treatises and Practice Guides. Find one on your topic using a directory like the Georgetown Law Library Treatise Finder.
  3. Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports: If you are dealing with an issue in federal law, there may be a CRS report on the topic. These can be great overviews of the legislative issues, and can provide useful citations to statues and cases, as well as statistics and other information. You can find CRS reports in a number of places.  
  4. Briefs: Filings in existing legal disputes can be a good source for arguments and citations to relevant authorities.
  5. Google. Use Google effectively. Hoping to find a court opinion? Use Google Scholar. Hoping to find some materials from a continuing legal education presentation? Narrow down by filetype:pdf or filetype:pptx. Might there be some government materials on your subject? Narrow down by inurl:.gov!
  6. Ask a professor, attorney colleague, librarian, or legal assistant for help!

Terms & Connectors

Using Boolean connectors and expanders allows you to create very precise searches and may lead to more focused and relevant results. 

Connectors and Expanders
CONNECTOR
EXAMPLE(S)
EXPLANATION
WESTLAW ((click on the advanced link by the search bar for guidance)
LEXIS (click the advanced search link for guidance.)
AND
Burden AND Proof
Burden & Proof
Use this when you need both term/phrases, but have no better idea of how close they might be. You can also use this to connect two terms with another phrase
&
AND
Lexis recognizes Westlaw search connectors!
and
SAME PARAGRAPH
Burden /p proof
Burden w/p proof
Use this when you know that your two search terms will be closely linked
/p
w/p
/p
SAME SENTENCE
Burden /s proof
Use this if you know that two terms will be in the same sentence (if they are part of a phrase).
/s
w/s
/s
WITHIN N WORDS OF ANOTHER TERM
Burden /5 proof
Use this if you believe your words have to be even closer together than just the same sentence. Useful when searching names, legal phrases, or terms of art.
/n
w/n
/n
OR
Burden /s proof OR proving
Burden /s proof proving (in Westlaw)
Use this to present synonyms or alternative search terms.
or
OR
OR
or
EXACT QUOTES
“strict liability”
Use this if you believe a phrase can only be expressed exactly as you write it. If in doubt, use the /s or /n connector!
" "
 " "
VARIATIONS OF DIFFERENT WORDS
Liab! (covers liability and liable)
Use this if you have a term that could take a number of variations.
!
*
WILDCARD or UNIVERSAL CHARACTER
Theat**
Int**net
Inform???
Use this if there are a few different variations of a word. Many of the databases now do this automatically.
*
?
THE WORD SHOULD SHOW UP A CERTAIN NUMBER OF TIMES
ATLEAST5(pretext) AND age /s discrim!
Use this if you know that a search term should show up many times. This knocks out the case that just mention something in passing.
ATLEASTN([word or phrase])
atleastn([word])