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Summer Job Legal Research: Where Do I Start?

Aids for your summer legal job. Don't know where to start? Come here first!

Work the Problem

Understand the Issues

Remember the acronym JUST ASK.

J - Jurisdiction 
Find out if you need to examine federal or state, court or administrative decisions, regulatory or legislative sources, or some combination. 

U - Useful tips 
The assigning attorney may know of experts in the field, recent publications, or internal documents that could help you. Try to get names of people, and copies or cites of documents.

S - Scope 
How much information is the attorney really looking for? Should your research be exhaustive, or just an overview? 

T - Terms of art 
Ask the assigning attorney for standard terms of art and their definitions. Knowing the right terminology can save time, effort, and money. 

A - Acronyms
Clarify the spelling and meaning of acronyms. Attorneys in specialized fields tend to throw these around without realizing they may be meaningless to those new to the field. 

S - Sources
As an expert, the assigning attorney should know the "bibles" of research in the field. Ask for titles of key journals, looseleafs, treatises, and databases. 

K - Key cost constraints 
Is the client a stickler on certain charges, such as Westlaw or Lexis? How many hours should you be billing on this project? Can you use faxes, document delivery services, messengers? Find out before you start spending. 

Written by Georgetown Law Library, current as of May 2013.

Create a Plan

Creating a research plan will help you organize your thoughts and give you a clear direction to begin your research.

  • Understand the questions presented. Read the request carefully, and put into words the questions that need to be answered by your research.
  • Highlight key concepts. For example, if you are researching the law on dog bites, both "dog" and "bite" are concepts you'll want to include in your search.
  • Develop synonyms for your concepts. For your concept "dog," you may want to include "pet" or "animal" in your search. For "bite," you could include "injury."
  • Pick appropriate sources to begin your research. Start with a secondary source, which will direct you to primary law.

Start With Secondary Sources

The main types of secondary sources are

  • Legal Encyclopedias
  • American Law Reports (ALR)
  • Treatises

Legal encyclopedias cover the entire range of subjects in the law. You can use a legal encyclopedia to define terms and to give you a basic background on an area of law. Most jurisdictions have a legal encyclopedia: Florida has Florida Jurisprudence (FL Jur), while American Jurisprudence (Am Jur) covers federal and general state law.

American Law Reports is a source that covers a broad range of law, but only specific issues within that range. Those issues receive deep consideration, with a breakdown of relevant case law on all sides of the issue. If you can find an ALR article on the issue you're interested in, half your research will already be done.

Treatises are sources that deal in-depth with a particular area of law. They may be single or multiple volumes, depending on the type and breadth of the law they cover. You can use treatises to bring you up to speed in an area of law you're unfamiliar with (subject treatises) or to guide you in the practice of law (practice treatises). In Florida, a good practice treatise is the Florida Practice Series.  Many treatises also include relevant forms, which can be vital for litigation or transactional practice. 

How Do I Find Secondary Sources?

Most libraries will have ALR and at least one legal encyclopedia in print. They may or may not have treatises. During the summer, you can access treatises on Lexis Advance (Browse Sources -> Secondary Materials -> Treatises), or on WestlawNext (Secondary Sources -> Treatises) if you are working at a nonprofit.

Why Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources do several things:

  • Define terms
  • Familiarize you with an area of law you don't know
  • Link you to relevant case law and statutes

By beginning with secondary sources, you will have much of your work done for you.