How to Do Legal Research: 7 Tips and Strategies

As part of your job as an attorney, you’ll need to conduct legal research. Even if you know what you’re doing, this can be a tedious, long process. And if you’re unsure of aspects of it, it’s even worse.

Don’t worry! Read on for 7 tips for how to do legal research efficiently, and thoroughly.


Judge Dan Hinde

1) Ask for Help

There is no shame in asking for help if something is stumping you. A fresh pair of eyes and a new perspective can open up new avenues to pursue that you couldn’t think of alone.

Use the people and resources available to point you in the right direction. It’ll save you time in the long run, and help avoid going down dead ends.

Consider asking colleagues in your firm or association for their favorite research tools. Your law librarian can also help point out useful resources and strategies too.



And don’t forget about your county or state law library. Another great resource is the Library of Congress to help you get started.There, you can talk with their team of experts to help work out strategies that work for your research style. You can then take these strategies away and apply them to all your future research projects.

2) Narrow Down Your Jurisdiction

When starting your research, a common mistake is to take on a jurisdiction that’s too wide. This search often takes you into other states than your own appropriate jurisdiction.

But cases from other states are persuasive, not mandatory. Persuasive authority has little weight so unless stated otherwise, you shouldn’t include any.

Cases that have mandatory authority are from the relevant state, and Supreme Court. Federal cases from the right circuit can be possible. But they’re trickier to apply, so you will need to check to make sure you’re doing it right.

3) Create a Master List of Websites

If your website doesn’t have a resource page (or even if it does) keep a master list for easy access to good resources. Your state law library website usually has a comprehensive list to check out and get you started.

Either keep it in a bookmark folder or as a word/txt document for ease of reference. Save resources for other daily tasks, like legal newspapers or the local court docket.

4) Use Both Primary and Secondary Sources

Within your master list, use subcategories for your primary and secondary sources. There are databases and online sources that digitalized their primary source material. You want to keep a bank of these, at it’s easy to browse online. Otherwise, to view it you’ll have to go to the archive that keeps them to view in person.

When it comes to primary and secondary sources, it doesn’t matter which one you start with. But make sure you include both. Both will give valuable information that can support the claims of your client. One from recent examples, one from historical precedent.

5) When You Find a Case That’s Helpful Use It to Find Others

This is one of the most helpful legal research tips you’ll see. And it’s often one of the most overlooked as well. Legal databases like Westlaw and LexisNexis have research shortcuts that you can use.

LexisNexis uses “Shepardize” while Westlaw uses “KeyCite” but both do the same function. These tools let you see other cases that have cited the one you’re looking at.

The cases that are citing your case as a good example are options for you to consider. If they aren’t examples themselves, they may offer up more valuable information. Even the ones that use it as a negative example can have their uses and shed more detail on the case’s usefulness.

When reading cases on these two sites, the cases marked as authority will have hyperlinks. Scanning the hyperlinked cases will is a good idea. If that case had authority for the one you’re considering as a match, it could help your client’s case too.

Also, pay attention to the headnotes. These will give the key legal points contained in the case. Both Westlaw and LexisNexis let you view cases that use the same headnotes. If one headnote matches another, then it could be worth a read.

6) Consider the Data But Don’t Obsess About It

In general, a more up-to-date case is usually preferred. Newer cases have more reference to the current legal and societal climate. They also reflect more on the changes and challenges they face.

But, if you find a case that’s a perfect match but it’s 20 years old, don’t worry. This could be the case because your client’s issue hasn’t occurred again since then.

Do a couple of checks into the negative treatment of your chosen case to make sure it’ll stand up. If you’re not getting any major red flags, usually you’ll be fine to use it. Consider reaching out to experienced attorneys like, who will have up to date first hand experience in their juristiction.

7) Know When Enough is Enough

When conducting legal research, you need to do your due diligence. Only doing a couple of Google searches isn’t going to cut it. But on the flip side, you shouldn’t be spending days researching a common case.

Legal research shouldn’t become a hunt for the elusive unicorn. In a lot of cases, you’re not going to find an exact case or statute match like you want to. Once you get that feeling where you think you’ve exhausted all options, you probably have.

This goes back to our tip about asking for help. Bring in another set of eyes to look over your approach and what you have found already. A new perspective might reveal something you’ve missed, or not thought of.

Though you might feel like it, you haven’t failed if the legal precedent isn’t there to find. This is a situation that attorneys of all levels will struggle with at every point in their career.

How to Do Legal Research Made Easy

So there you have it! With these 7 tips on how to do legal research, you’ll get more done with ease and efficiency.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or another set of eyes. Keep everything organized and have a master list for your resources. And most of all, it’s okay to admit defeat when the precedent just isn’t there to find.

If you found this article helpful, check out our other blog posts today!

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