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1L & LL.M Research Guide

Guide to teaching the basics to first-year law students of legal research.

1L & LL.M Research Guide

In a 2014-2015 national study, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System surveyed 24,000 participating lawyers, from diverse practice backgrounds, regarding about a dozen foundational “short term” skills. The participating lawyers most frequently cited legal research skills as foundational–84% of those surveyed found it necessary in the “short term” as a foundational skill to legal thinking. Legal research isn’t just a routine activity. As this guide will demonstrate, it is part of legal thinking.

This guide is meant to supplement instruction in Lawyering Skills I for first-year law students at UMKC. The guide is limited in scope by the time constraints of the course. Students are encouraged to take advanced legal research courses to supplement their skills. Check out Thinking About Legal Research, an advanced/refresher guide to legal research.

Computer with picture of book on screen

What is Legal Research?

While there is no one standardized definition, two legal research scholars have defined legal research as

"the process of identifying and retrieving information necessary to scales of justicesupport legal decision-making. In its broadest sense, legal research includes each step of a course of action that begins with an analysis of the facts of a problem and concludes with the application and communication of the results of the investigation."

     — J. Myron Jacobstein & Roy M. Mersky, Fundamentals of Legal Research (8th ed. 2002)

Before You Start ... Work the Problem

Prior to ever sitting down at a computer search engine or database or visiting the library, it is important to work your problem for everything you can find in it to help you with your search.

Example of working the problem

The above illustrates identifying terms to the "work the problem" before commencing research.  It uses a "who, what, why, when, how" framework. For more insight see, Paul D. Callister, Working the Problem, 91 Illinois Bar J. 43-44, Jan. 2003.

Working the Problem

Good Questions - Strategy

Concentric figures of what the student knows and what the profession knows.

Good Questions - Template

Essentially, you want to ask the questions from your middle-school writing class.

What You Need to Know Sample Questions
Parties Who are we representing (i.e., which side of the issue are we on–buyer or seller, plaintiff or defendant, etc.)?  What legal entities are involved (any trusts, corporations, partnerships, etc.)?
Descriptive Words of Facts Besides the term "profit-sharing plan" are there other terms, I should be using like "pension" or "retirement"?  I'm not sure if I understand the difference or if it matters.
Descriptive Words of Legal Issues Do you think that the best subject heading to describe the problem is "exemptions in bankruptcy"?
Specific Sources to be Used For my research on foreclosures, is there a specific treatise or loose-leaf service I should consult in addition to Illinois Jurisprudence?
Applicable Jurisdictions Do you want me to research federal law as well as Illinois?  Do you want me to confine my federal research to a single circuit?  Are you interested in any other states?  Are there any choice of law issues?
Time Periods What time periods do you want me to research?  Is the last two years sufficient?
Time Deadlines/Priority Do you want a quick answer or exhaustive research?  I'm planning on spending Saturday working on a research project for Ms. Smith?  If I complete this by Tuesday morning is that ok?
Objective What are we trying to accomplish with this memo, brief, motion, contract, etc.?  How do we want this to come out?
Precision/Recall Do you want all of the relevant journal articles or just the best article on the topic?  Do you want all of the cases similar to Jones v. Smith or just those which have cited it and treated it extensively?
Billable Time/Costs How long should this take me?  Are they any limits as to how many hours we can bill for?  How in depth do you want my research?  May I use LEXIS and/or Westlaw?  Which parts of the research, if any, would you do online?  Do you want me to try and use free sources for my research?  Has anyone ever done similar research on the topic that I should know about?
Presentations of Results and Reporting Back How do you want me to present my results?  Do you want just printouts marked with highlighter or a full memo?  Should I check back with my initial results?