Legal Research 101: What Attorneys Need To Know

Posted by Alison ONeill | Mon, Jun 01, 2020

Experienced lawyers know that some of the most valuable casework happens before they step into a courtroom or meet with opposing counsel. Not even the most knowledgeable and well-versed attorneys can be expected to remember every precedent, judicial ruling, and local doctrine that might make an impact on a case. It takes an enormous amount of work to find out where a particular case fits into the broader legal framework and what arguments will carry the most weight with a judge or jury. Legal research is a vital part of any lawsuit or legal matter, giving both parties the information they need to support their cases and make a compelling argument.

The shift toward digital platforms has given attorneys more resources than ever to research legal documents, pull up information and records that offer evidentiary value, establish legal precedent, and make a case. Every lawyer should know how to take advantage of these legal research tools to improve their discovery strategies and workflows.


What is legal research?

Depending on who you ask, you might hear legal research described in different terms. Academic institutions like Cornell University’s Law School often focus on legal precedents, for instance. We prefer to stick to a broader legal research definition, one that encompasses all of the common scenarios a lawyer might encounter in their work.

As such, legal research covers a lot of ground, including determining whether or not a legal matter is a case of first impression, finding a legal precedent to consult, and supporting a case with documented evidence, expert opinions, and other materials. 

The broader umbrella of legal research can also cover assessment and review of existing laws that may pertain to a case or legal matter. By closely examining the legal code, lawyers can break complex laws and regulations down into more easily understandable pieces and come to an educated conclusion regarding its relevance to a particular case. Even experienced attorneys sometimes struggle to make sense of the complicated - some might even say convoluted - language used in written opinions and legal codes. Certain research sources can cut through the legalese and help attorneys make sense of those documents.

Much of the documentation and preservation work that is done during eDiscovery can be considered legal research as well. While lawyers attorneys or paralegals may not be consulting statutes or legal journals to gather this information, eDiscovery requires a great deal of research to support a case.


What are the different types of legal research?

The scope of law research can vary greatly depending on the specific conditions of a case and the kind of evidentiary support that an attorney requires. We’ve touched on a few those different types of legal research above, but it’s important to understand the full scope of information and legal authorities that need to be consulted:


Primary authorities

Lawyers looking for any laws currently on the books that might impact their case need to review all available primary authorities on the matter. Those can include:

  • Federal laws.
  • Local statutes.
  • Federal regulations.
  • Previous judicial rulings.
  • Caselaw collections.
  • State constitutions.
  • Local ordinances. 


Primary authorities are often indisputable in a court of law, but there is some consideration that needs to be made between mandatory and persuasive forms of authority. Mandatory authorities are binding in legal matters no matter how compelling the other side’s argument is. 

For instance, state governments have different - and sometimes conflicting - laws regarding at-will employment and workers’ rights. Montana is one of the most notable examples, requiring employers to demonstrate good cause for any employee termination that occurs outside of an initial probationary period. Employees filing a wrongful termination suit in Montana can strengthen their case by citing current state law. In many other states, however, there are no such protections in place, and employers can fire a worker without cause. In either scenario, state constitutions and laws act as mandatory authorities.

But what if there are no existing laws that specifically refer to the case at hand? Lawyers can cite other statutes, regulations, and rulings from other jurisdictions as persuasive authority. Judges can weigh the relevance of those laws along with other evidence to help arrive at a ruling, but they aren’t bound to follow them. Even so, demonstrating that there is precedent in other jurisdictions that supports your position and argument can be very compelling and help sway a judge or convince opposing counsel to settle without going to trial.


Secondary authorities

By definition, secondary authorities are not legally binding, but they offer supplementary value by helping to explain the ramifications of specific laws that might pertain to a given case. They may also point attorneys toward a primary authority that can help make their case.


Some common examples of secondary authorities include:

  • Law journals.
  • Articles.
  • Treatises.
  • Legal digests.
  • Legal encyclopedias and other reference materials.
  • Hornbooks.


Lawyers rarely have cause to actually cite secondary authorities in their legal arguments since they don’t provide hard evidentiary support. That being said, these resources can help legal teams anticipate how a particular case might unfold by or how an argument and legal strategy may be received by court officials.


How to Do Legal Research: Create A Strategy

As you research the law, the plethora of information and legal precedents can take an attorney in a number of different directions. That’s why it’s important to have a plan of action and strategy in place to guide your efforts from the outset.

Divvy up legal research responsibilities between the available team members, including attorneys, paralegals, law clerks, and other employees. Making everyone responsible for their own search parameters and avenues of exploration will significantly reduce the scope of each person’s research. 

To get started on the right foot, turn to your secondary authorities. Many have online and digital resources that can be easily searched according to targeted keywords. They can point you toward relevant cases, judgments, and rulings that can inform how you build your case. Secondary sources can also help break down the legal ramifications of a particular scenario in the event that a legal team is unsure of how to proceed.

Law esearch should also be built into a broader discovery strategy and workflow. Not all of the information that is unearthed during the research process will apply to discovery, but consulting primary authorities and secondary sources can help lawyers determine the scope of a case. It’s easier to anticipate arguments that opposing counsel will put forward and find effective ways to counter those arguments by reviewing similar cases. 

Creating a detailed legal research strategy will help keep your team on task and avoid wasting time and billable hours hunting down information that won’t help your case.


Using legal research solutions

Researching law can be aided by software resources to make the process less stressful. Online tools like LexisNexis are popular among legal professionals for good reason: They have access to a large repository of legal documents and reference materials to guide your discovery workflows and point you toward legal precedents that can help your case.

Some lawyers may be content to rely solely on the number of free tools available online, but they would be missing out on the more advanced and sophisticated solutions that have been released in recent years. Among the leading legal research platforms available today, those that leverage cutting-edge technology like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing can significantly improve the discovery process. They can more effectively search large repositories of legal information to find the right material that closely matches user intent.

Sophisticated technology should be a part of the entire discovery process, especially now that many document formats have been digitized. Lawyers can use leading solutions to quickly comb through huge volumes of data in no time at all. With a more streamlined discovery process, attorneys can spend less time gathering information and searching for useful documents or legal precedents and focus on crafting a compelling and persuasive case.


Digital WarRoom’s eDiscovery software is designed from the ground up to address the day-to-day logistics of building a case and protecting law firms from allegations of negligence or impropriety. Legal research and discovery don’t have to be arduous tasks: With the right tools, these critical steps in the legal process are easier than ever.


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