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The Seven Steps for Effective Legal Research

Posted by Melanie Davidson on 21 January 2015

The 7 steps for effective legal research
 All it takes is seven simple steps

I recently read that "it doesn't matter how many resources you have, if you don't know how to use them, it will never be enough".

This got me thinking about the importance of knowing how to undertake effective legal research. It starts with a clear, working knowledge of the research platform(s) and ends with a refined list of authorities for use in your work.

With this in mind, I have compiled a list of my seven steps for more effective research below. They're by no means exhaustive and are simply tips I have picked up over time during my studies.

  1. Know how to use the legal research platform(s) you intend to use: This seems obvious but it's so easily overlooked. Before even considering the active task of researching, it is imperative that you are well acquainted with, and have a working knowledge of, legal platforms, such as JustCite and Justis, which you plan to use for your research. This means an awareness of the ways in which they search, and therefore the methodologies they use for searching. While some require specific search terms, unaccommodating to spelling mistakes, others are clever in allowing you to search for all combinations of endings to words. Having a good grasp of how they work places you in a better position towards successfully completing research. A classic mistake is to further narrow down a search that yields no results by adding further parameters. Broadening your search is the only logical way to get more results.
  2. Be clear on the results you want to see: While you can't anticipate all of the results that will appear, if you have a secure knowledge of the practice area you may have some idea of what to expect. Even if you do, you must ensure you are searching in such a way that the results returned reflect why you are doing the search in the first place. If you need help in answering a question or authority to support an argument on a point of law, it is worthwhile breaking it down into specific issues or points of law on which to research. That way it makes the task more manageable and you are more likely to receive results that are relevant.
  3. Be organised: Once you have started your research, it is important that you make note of any useful results you come across. This is not to say that you should note down every list of results, but rather those which on the facts or points of law are relevant and add authority to the point you are making. Features such as MyJustCite allow you to save searches and specific documents, which are then stored in a list on your account. You can apply client codes to make the list even more methodical, and this is particularly helpful when undertaking large amounts of research.
  4. Be patient: Researching the law does take some time and can feel like panning for gold. At times it may feel fruitless if, for example, you're looking for a very specific or niche point. But when you find that gem of a case it's like finding a needle in a haystack. You soon realise it was worth it. Patience is a virtue for anyone researching the law.
  5. Use visualistion tools: When it comes to understanding the relationships between cases, it can be overwhelming to see lists of cited cases in law reports or simply cases used in a judgment in a transcript. To save you from reading every judgment, visualisation tools such as our Precedent Map have been developed to remove this burden. It shows you, in a clearly digestible format, the relationship beween the case you're researching and those it treated, as well as how the case was treated after it was heard. At a click of a button you are opened up to a world of visual case information which will save you a lot of time.
  6. Be selective: Tools such as the Precedent Map should be used alongside your own judgement when deciding those authorities that are most relevant to your point. It is important that you are selective in the authorities you choose. The foundational cases of a practice area will make an appearance in the results, alongside others that are authoritative on other points or expand on the decision of such a case. You should pose the questions: (i) What will this case bring to my argument? and (ii) How well does it support the proposition you are trying to make?
  7. And don't rush: Ensure you set aside plenty of time. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that you can face roadblocks and meet deadends in your research efforts for any number of reasons. Given this risk, it is important to plan ahead and have in mind the path you wish and/or expect to take before embarking on your journey. Having planned for this, any hurdles you come across should be much more manageable.

If you feel that I've not included any other useful hints and tips, or have any other comments to make on this piece, please add a comment in the box below.

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Melanie Davidson

Written by Melanie Davidson

Mel works as the Marketing Executive for Justis, writing legal content for our blog as well as organising our advertising and other marketing activities. She completed her Masters degree in Public International Law, writing her dissertation on the persecution of minorities. Her predominant legal interest lies in the areas of state crime and international human rights.

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