Advice for Law Students and New Attorneys Doing Legal Research Online

May 16, 2017

How do I know where to begin? How do I know when I’ve exhausted my resources? Online research is part and parcel to virtually every industry, personal, and professional pursuit in some way these days, but legal research is a different animal than other kinds of online search. There isn’t always a clear answer or a direct case on point in your jurisdiction. For anyone still relatively early in their legal career, today we share a few tips for approaching your online legal research so you set yourself up to find what you need as easily and quickly as possible.

#1: Know where you want to go so you know where to begin.

You have plenty of options for where to start your search. To make the right choice, a good first step is to become clear on the exact legal question that needs to be answered (more on that here) before you begin. What legal issues should you focus on first? Is there an exact term of art to incorporate into the search? A plain language WestSearch is a great starting point and brings back results in secondary sources, cases, statutes, and other materials. Starting with a broad WestSearch will also allow you to narrow through a search within results, perfect for incorporating material facts into your search.

Simpler matters may lend themselves easily to a Google search or a free legal research database query. These resources have their limits, however, as the matter becomes more complex. If budget concerns are pushing you toward free research services, consider how much money and time may be at risk if the research is incomplete or not up to date. Both of these possibilities are often more likely if you’re not using a paid service that provides value-adding features the lower-cost options don’t.

#2: Consult both secondary sources and primary authorities.

Their name notwithstanding, secondary sources are usually the best place to start to get an overview of a new practice area or issue and to quickly identify the most relevant cases, statutes, and regulations. Secondary sources will provide insights and direction you can use to inform the remainder of your research. In most instances, however, you won’t be able to cite to them directly, so use secondary sources as guidance rather than a replacement for your subsequent exploration of primary authorities such as statutes and case law.

#3: Don’t work in isolation.

The breadth of information available from online sources can create the false illusion that all the answers you need are a search bar away. When the topic is straightforward and hard to debate, that is often the case. But by now you know that if most legal matters were simple and indisputable, lawyers wouldn’t exist.

A common complaint among experienced attorneys is that new attorneys are afraid to ask questions lest they reveal their lack of knowledge about a topic. Of course, it’s a mistake to think that you can skip doing your own homework before asking relevant follow-up questions. But knowing your own limits and when to ask for assistance or guidance from your superiors are skills in their own right.

Getting started on your legal research? Explore Secondary Sources on Westlaw.

Don’t have Westlaw yet? Sign up for a free trial to see how Westlaw can help with your research.