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How to do Academic Legal Research – 6 Steps to Success

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Academic legal research always starts with a research plan and this article sets out the steps on how to approach your legal research. No matter the question or topic, this approach will keep you focused, calm and prepared to handle any assignment.

Identify the questions and issues

Create a set of queries that you should be able to answer by the end of the question. These may include:

  • What perspectives are being considered?
  • What are the effects/consequences of a specific legal case or legislation?
  • Am I considering multiple jurisdictions or comparing between legal systems?
  • Is the time period important?

  • With these questions, your legal research has direction and purpose. If you become bogged down or lost in sources and commentary, always come back to your set of questions and see if you are answering your questions.

    Create a list of key search terms

    These terms will cover what topics you are researching and reduce the time spent looking at unnecessary or irrelevant information. A practical tip is to use the search function on your computer or search engine (such as F5) and locate where your search terms appear in any document or website.

    Start with your secondary sources

    Now that you are ready to spend time gathering information and sources, you should look for secondary sources. Secondary sources include journal articles, books, core texts from practitioners, academic commentary, newspapers and blogs. This gives you the necessary context to understand the law that you will soon be researching. This is especially important in academic research as a lot of your work will have to show an understanding of the theory behind the law and consider the social and economic context the law operates in.

    Identify relevant legislation

    If your research has directed you to key legislation, now is the time to identify the key provisions in the legislation and identify how and when these statutes will apply. This is a good time to use legal research databases such as Westlaw or LexisNexis. These databases provide the most up-to-date versions of the current legislation you are researching.

    Read case law, NOT case summaries!

    You are now familiar enough with the area of your research to dive into the case law and numerous judgments. At this point, you have completed quite a bit of research and the temptation is to take shortcuts. However, your research and work will be more beneficial if you take the time and energy to examine and read the relevant case law which you have pinpointed. Case summaries may be quick but are largely unhelpful because these summaries do not go into the detail that is needed. When reading judgments, identify the key facts of the case, understand what was decided and examine the judge’s reasoning and whether there was a difference in opinion between the judges. Finally, make sure you take note of whether the case law is still good law, is being challenged or has been disregarded.

    Plan your legal argument or position All the research that you have done thus far has led you to thinking of possible legal arguments and different legal positions you may want to take. Keep your arguments relevant, engaging and concise and look back at what legal opinions or arguments have been made before in your research.

    If you follow these 6 key steps when doing your legal research, you will be more efficient with your time and, more importantly, deal with the issues and questions that your research is about.

    Extra tips to succeed:

  • Use your library resources
  • Write down and keep proper references of any sources
  • Do not limit yourself to Google or Wikipedia
  • Do not be tempted by shortcuts!
  • Know when to take a break