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Legal Research Basics: Step by Step Strategy

Step One: Factual Analysis

Carefully and thoroughly go over the facts of your situation. Ask: who, what, where, when?

  • Who are the people or parties involved?
    • What group, class or status of persons is involved? What is their relationship to each other?
  • What item is involved? What is the subject matter of the dispute?
  • Where did the events take place? What is the location of the incident? 
  • When did the event/incident take place? What is the time and date of the incident?
  • What is the possible cause of action or legal theory? (Is this a tort? Breach of contract? Is there a defense?)
  • What relief is being sought? (Money damages? Injunction? Criminal penalties?)

 Create your Question Presented or Thesis Statement from the answers to your factual questions.

Step Two: Generate Research Vocabulary

Think of terms and phrases that might be applied to your facts and issues. Be sure to come up with as many synonyms, antonyms, broader, narrower and related terms as possible. Use the terms and phrases as keyword searches or index terms.

Step Three: Search for Sources

Use your research vocabulary as index and search terms for both online and print sources.

A. Secondary Sources

  • Legal Encyclopedia and ALR
  • Law Reviews and Journals
  • Treatises, Texts and Hornbooks  
  • Research Guides
  • Practice Materials, Formbooks, Current Awareness Sources

B. Primary Authority (Look for primary authority. If none, try persuasive authority.)  

  • Statutes, Codes and Legislative History
  • Cases: Find and Update
  • Administrative Regulations and Decisions 

Step Four: Validate and Update Results

Update your cases, statutes and rules to be sure you have the latest authority. Verify with citators (Shepard’s or Keycite) that your authority remains "good law." Also check for new laws or amendments or pending legislation.

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