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How can you best start your legal research?

By Jeremy Byellin
Blog Writer, Thomson Reuters

In a previous blog post, I discussed some best practices for ensuring that your legal research process is complete. But getting to the point of feeling that your legal research is truly finished assumes that the process had a sound start. Even though it may sound simple enough to get a “good start” on your legal research, many legal professionals spend more time than they probably should on it – which, in turn, causes the entire research process to take longer and may produce deficient results.

So, how can this “good start” be achieved?

First things first: You must identify the legal issues that you will be researching, along with the jurisdiction in which your legal matter is located.

Once that is taken care of, where do you go?

There are a number of places to start, all of which can point you in the direction of additional sources and authorities. Ideally, each of the following resources will hold some value for your research project.

Westlaw Answers

If you can phrase your legal issue in the form of a more general question, Westlaw might have the answer…in the form of Westlaw Answers.

This feature was added earlier this year, and auto-populates potential questions when you enter your search terms. Clicking on such a question brings you to a page with jurisdiction-specific authorities – which are often great resources to begin your legal research on that issue.

Being a recent Westlaw Enhancement, Westlaw Answers isn’t inclusive of every possible legal question. Nevertheless, it’s a great place to start if you can find a relevant question in your jurisdiction, and using the feature takes so little effort.

Practice Series

Many different states have a “Practice Series” available in Westlaw, and you should always check to see if your state has one, and whether it contains any content relevant to your legal issue.

There are a few different methods of navigating to this content, but one of the easiest ways (besides adding the title to your Favorites) is to navigate there from the Westlaw home screen by clicking on the “State Materials” tab and selecting the state appropriate to your legal matter.

The content available varies by state, but if you can find your legal issue within the appropriate state publication, the Practice Series can offer a great place for you to start, with summaries and explanations of legal topics, practice tips, and references to relevant cases, statutes, and other authorities.

West Key Number System

As I mentioned in my previous article, the West Key Number System represents the most comprehensive indexing system for case law issues. I won’t further repeat myself from what I’ve already written (and you can always see what I’ve said about the system here), but the West Key Number System can be an invaluable starting point for your research.

If you already have a pertinent case to your legal issue, you can look at the case’s headnotes to see if there are any relevant points of law addressed.

By clicking on a specific key number, you can view all of the cases with headnotes using that key number, which can then be narrowed to specific jurisdictions.

And if you don’t even have a case yet to start from, browsing through key numbers directly is a great way to find some.

Table of Authorities

Assuming that you do have a relevant case or cases, a very quick and simple way to view all of the cases relied upon as authority in that case is by clicking on the “Table of Authorities” tab at the top of the document.

A list of all of the authorities cited, along with other information is offered, such as: the treatment the cited authority received and the location in the document of the citation.

While not all the cited authorities will be applicable to the legal issue being researched, the Table of Authorities feature nevertheless offers valuable resources for starting your legal research process.

Journals, Law Reviews, and other Secondary Sources

One of the biggest mistakes that can be made when conducting legal research is dismissing secondary sources, such as journals and law review articles. After all, they can’t be cited in your argument as precedent, so it’s tempting to just ignore them in favor of focusing on case law.

To those who know better, such resources can be invaluable, especially at the outset of one’s legal research process, when the legal issue at hand may not yet be fully understood. They can help researchers better understand an issue since the articles often include explanations of the often complex legal matters at hand, and can point researchers in the direction of pertinent authorities, since the articles also typically include analyses of case law, frequently within a specific jurisdiction.

For as many different starting points I just offered, seasoned researchers may even have other favorites that work best for their needs. However you choose to begin your legal research journey, there are a vast number of resources available to help you to the finish line.

To make sure you are taking the best approach to your legal research, always remember that the Reference Attorneys are an included service with your Westlaw subscription – and ready to help anytime.

About the author

Jeremy Byellin is an attorney practicing in the areas of family law and estate planning. He lives in the Minneapolis area with his wife, who is also an attorney, and his two sons and daughter. In his spare time, he enjoys running and being outdoors.