Advice for Law Students on Conducting Legal Search

We examine the common challenges that law students face when conducting legal research and pick up some pointers on how to work around them.

Many law students worry unnecessarily about using the correct IRAC format when writing, but actually writing the text is only half the battle. Your brief or memorandum will not be taken seriously if you haven’t done your homework. Legal research is a skill that must be practiced, and many students overthink it, leading to insufficient statutory and case law. To help make the process of writing legal documents easier, this article identifies the seven most effective legal research strategies.

Identify the Issue of Your Memo

Too often, after reading the client’s fact pattern, students start typing random phrases into Westlaw or LexisNexis in an attempt to find relevant case law. Law students should instead take a deep breath and ask, “What is the client trying to achieve with this lawsuit?”

The question “What are the legal criteria that either help or hurt my client?” can be answered once the cause of action has been established. The legal issue will be defined by the responses to those two questions. You can use this information to form the search phrase.

Narrow Your Jurisdiction

Students often make the common mistake of searching for information outside of the relevant jurisdiction when they first begin conducting legal research. Students who are stumped on where to find applicable law will sometimes look to states other than those with proper jurisdiction.

However, precedents from other jurisdictions should be treated as persuasive rather than binding. Unless instructed otherwise by your professor or supervising attorney, persuasive authority should be removed from all memoranda.

Only Supreme Court decisions and state cases are binding on lower courts. You may also use federal cases from the same circuit, but you should consult your law school’s faculty, a teaching assistant, or a supervising attorney to make sure you’ve applied them correctly.

Use Boolean Search Terms

Some may think it’s funny, but many students actually do type the entire issue statement into the search bar. Some people may be surprised to learn that Westlaw and LexisNexis function more similarly to everyday search engines like Google. That’s why it’s important to learn how to effectively use Boolean search terms; doing so will save you time and lead to better outcomes.

Learning to use Boolean search terms effectively won’t happen overnight – after all, there’s a good reason why we have firms such as Ellis & Ellis who specialize in law searches. Law search and legal search are professions in their own right. But the time you spend honing your skills now will pay off in spades later on.

If You Find a Helpful Case, Use That to Find Other Cases

This suggestion merits an entire article unto itself. It’s the golden standard of legal research strategies, yet it’s rarely used. Legal research shortcuts are available on both Westlaw and LexisNexis:

Although “Shepardize” on LexisNexis and “KeyCite” on Westlaw accomplish the same thing, the former is more user-friendly. Using this resource, you can discover what other cases have referenced yours.

You can look into the cases that cite yours as “good law” to see if there’s anything you can learn from them. Mastering the art of distinguishing between cases allows you to use even cases with negative treatment to the case you have in mind.

Cases cited as authority within a Westlaw or LexisNexis case brief are clickable. If the linked case was persuasive for the one you’re considering a match, it probably will be persuasive for your client’s case as well, so it’s a good idea to at least skim it.

Finally, headnotes provide key legal points within a case when you first look at it on WestLaw or LexisNexis. Both apps provide access to similar cases that share a common footnote. If you find that a particular case’s headnote is insightful, you should read the other cases that have the same author.

Know When to Stop

Professors and supervising lawyers in the legal field will expect you to conduct thorough research before presenting their findings. If you try the search bar three times before giving up, you won’t find what you’re looking for. Equally unwise is devoting four hours to investigating a fairly typical case.

Researching the law shouldn’t be viewed as a treasure hunt. It’s not uncommon to have trouble tracking down the specific piece of legislation or case law you need. Once you reach the point where you think you can’t take another look, you probably can’t. Use what you’ve learned to write a strong IRAC.

Get a second opinion if you can. If it’s for a legal education assignment, run it by your TA or mentor to make sure you didn’t miss anything. If this is part of your internship, check in with your supervising attorney to see if you’ve completed your work. You may feel like a loser if you haven’t yet located the law that will guarantee a win for your client. However, you should be reassured to learn that this is a common problem for many lawyers.