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Thinking About Legal Research Problems

Created by Paul D. Callister from earlier version at

Question Type

Working the Problem - Good Questions

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?