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by Carter Isham | October 13, 2021


Your first open memo is due, and you’re not sure if you have done all the research correctly or found all the law you need to cite. Or maybe you’re staring at a blank page that needs to become a client motion, and you need some inspiration for crafting a winning argument. Both of these situations highlight how learning to use research tools in law school and actually engaging in research as a student or attorney can feel disconnected. Here are some quick tips that will help you stop spinning your wheels and improve your research skills.

Start with the Basics

First things first: Read the fact pattern carefully to wrap your head around the issue(s) and start forming a research plan. While you’re reading, look for any words or phrases that seem fundamental to your issue(s)—these could be facts or legal concepts—and therefore could become search topics. Highlight or circle those words or phrases so they are easy to refer back to as you move through the research process.

Let Secondary Sources Be Your Guide…

Next, find your way to secondary sources, either via printed books in your law library (if they’re still available!), or via virtual versions available online. Treatises are a great place to start new research. They are written by experts and specifically designed to explain legal issues and concepts, and they are also relatively concise, so by utilizing treatises you can quickly understand a legal issue—even if you’ve never encountered it before. Also—and very importantly—treatises contain citations to the authority relied on, which is a major time-saver when it comes to locating important cases and statutes you may end up using in your arguments. These citations are sometimes in the text, but often you will find them in the footnotes along with explanations or quotes from the cited case or statute. Footnotes are never very exciting, but in this instance, they are usually worth reviewing.

…And Branch Out from There

After working your way through a treatise section or two (and the related footnotes), there are two routes you can take next to find additional information and law. The first route is to review any seemingly on-point cases or statutes that were cited in the treatise sections you found. This is especially helpful if these cases or statutes are from your jurisdiction, but they can still provide you with helpful information even if they are from another state or circuit. The second route is to review the new information from the treatise sections you found for any additional words or concepts you want to add to your search topics, and then run a search for primary law using both your original search topics and any new ones. A quick aside: When you are searching for primary law, it helps to know whether you want to begin in cases or statutes. Unless you need to find a statute, searching in cases can be a good place to start, because cases help you understand how statutes are applied by the courts.

Use Research Tools to Your Advantage

Once you are focused in on a single case, make use of the tools available on your preferred research platform to help you quickly and effectively understand the case and how it applies to your issue. Most research platforms include a case summary that will help you gain a quick understanding of the framework of the case—this is especially useful with lengthy opinions—and headnotes/keynotes will help you understand the main issues addressed in the opinion and will quickly direct you to relevant issues. You should also be sure to confirm you are reading the correct version of the opinion published by the court.  

Make Sure the Law is Good Law

After reading a case and determining whether it’s on point (and helpful), you’ll want to validate the case to make sure that the law is still “good” law. Use your research platform’s validation tool to quickly and easily see how other cases have treated your case—did they follow it, overrule it, or disagree on a certain application of law to fact? Not only will validating your case help you ensure you’re citing to authority that is still “good,” but it is another opportunity to find additional law on your issue by locating more cases that agree with your position.

Using the above tips, you’ll more easily move from a blank page to a fully fleshed out, persuasive argument—or gain peace of mind that you did your due diligence to find the most impactful law. And with practice, you’ll feel confident in your research skills with every new assignment!