As a summer associate, you’ll be given a variety of assignments that will help you gain exposure to the type of work that law firm associates do on a regular basis. Though they might vary in subject area, scope, and size, almost all of these assignments are likely to involve some degree of legal research. Mastering legal research, therefore, is vital to making sure you do well on your summer assignments.
These tips will help you hone your research skills and impress your employer at the same time.
1. Start off on the right foot.
Make sure to be in the right headspace when learning about a legal research assignment. Be ready to ask questions to ensure your understanding of both logistical concerns (such as deadlines and billing instructions) and substantive issues (like the posture of the case). Making sure you understand what is being asked of you from the get-go is a crucial first step to a successful research assignment.
2. Get oriented.
Where you start your research will depend on the task and how familiar you are with its subject matter. As a summer associate, you are likely researching an area of law that is new to you, so take some time to get your bearings and figure out the best place to start before you dive in. This strategy will let you gain more context for the question, be more likely to spot other relevant issues during the research process, and end up with a more complete final work product. Secondary source materials are often a great place to get up to speed on the key background issues.
3. Utilize workflow tools.
Take advantage of the many workflow tools that are available. Tools that highlight key caselaw language, allow you to search over dockets, spot litigation trends, and quickly analyze briefs can make your research more accurate and efficient. They can also provide a good way to double-check your research. Knowing what technology is available to you and understanding how to optimize it can help set you apart from the pack. As you work with technology, always be mindful of the risks and ethical considerations involved.
4. Be flexible.
It’s often smart to cast a wide net when starting down a legal research path. Use broad search terms and connectors to get a handle on the possible universe of relevant cases. Then, play with those searches to get more specific. Alternatively, you may find that you have started out too narrow and need to broaden your search or look outside your jurisdiction for persuasive authority. You may also need to incorporate secondary and tertiary source material if primary material is not providing a good enough answer. Switching methods and research paths should be embraced as part of the legal research journey.
5. Stay focused.
As you research, make sure that you are on track to answer the question being asked. Throughout your research, always keep the question you were asked in mind. Research often leads you down unexpected paths, and it is important not to spend too much time researching issues that ultimately are not relevant. If you find yourself spending a lot of time researching an issue that you are not sure is relevant, check back in with the assigning attorney and ask whether you should continue down that path. This indicates that you are not only a thorough researcher, but that you are efficient and conscientious as well.
6. Convert your research into a good piece of legal writing.
Even if you nailed your research and found the perfect answer, you won’t get credit for it unless you deliver your findings effectively. This could be in the form of an email, memo to file, or other format as instructed by your supervisor.
Bloomberg Law subscribers can find additional resources on research, writing and document review on In Focus: Core Skills – Litigation and resources and best practices for personal growth and development on In Focus: Lawyer Development.
Everyone can find related content available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page.
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