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LAW 599 – U.S. Culture & Language (Prof. Schaetzel, Spring 2021): Research Strategy, Tips and Tricks

Introduction

Legal research is hard, but not impossible. Finding the answers to complex legal questions often requires the review and analysis of a variety of legal sources including primary sources such as case law, statutes, regulations, and the constitution. Often times, secondary sources such as law review articles and treatises, or the information provided on government or agency websites can act as a gateway to valuable information. 

Successful researchers routinely rely on a combination of resources, some creative thinking, and the determination to persevere through times of frustration. You each possess the analytical skills and critical thinking abilities to become successful researchers - otherwise you wouldn't have been hired as Research Assistants! Use this tab to help you get your research started off on the right foot and to keep you on the right track throughout the summer. And always remember, when in doubt, ask a librarian

The Research Process

Step 1: What’s the issue?
  • Is there a distinct legal issue you need more info about? Have you been asked to locate a specific document?
Step 2: What do you know?
  • Have you done research in this area before? How much background do you have? Do you need to use a secondary source to get familiar?
Step 3: What resources are available?
  • Do you know where to find secondary sources on-topic? What primary sources are available?
Step 4: Locate relevant sources and evaluate.
  • Use indexes, tables of contents, digests, and keyword searching to locate material that is on-point
  • Are these sources authoritative? Do they lead to other relevant materials? Do they address your legal issue?
Step 5: Update
  • Are the sources you found the most up-to-date? Have they been superseded by later law or editions?

Step 6: Repeat as needed.

Tips for Successful Research

It's okay to Google.

  • Google is a GREAT place to start your research. However, it is a terrible place to finish it. ("Well, I googled it, so it must be true" is never a good answer...)
  • Use Google searching, and especially advanced searching and specialized tools like Google Scholar, when you need quick background information and feel confident of your ability to evaluate your results, or when you need to locate web resources like legal blogs addressing a rapidly developing area of law or current events.
  • Google site searching can be useful when you need to extract relevant materials from a government or agency website. Try typing site:https://www.prc.gov "strategic plan" into a Google search bar and see if you can locate the latest Strategic Plan put out by the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Keep notes as you go.

  • General notes can include things such as what databases you used, what filters or search parameters you applied, and what keywords you actually used.
  • Specific notes can include which articles you have actually reviewed, which ones keep showing up, and which ones are highly cited.
  • Notes about prolific authors are also helpful – who is quoted often in a certain area? Use tools like Web of Science or search within legal databases by author to see what else scholars have written.

Start general and narrow your results to a manageable list.

  • Every database has some sort of “filtering” functionality. It may be in the search parameters or in the results lists – find it and use it.
  • Learning to read the results list is the first battle to online research. Take some time early on to really figure out what you are looking at.

Research is an art, not a science.

  • It takes some time to play around with things and find the “sweet spot” for your topic. This is where taking notes can save you a lot of time.
  • When you start to get frustrated, take a step away. Try to re-focus. Or ask for help. We are here to help you find what you need in a reasonable amount of time.  Let us help you.

When in doubt, ask a librarian.

Finding Articles with Indexes and Citation Databases

Publication Indexes

Indexes go beyond the full-text journal collections available in Westlaw and Lexis and provide indexing and abstracts for large numbers of English-language law reviews, legal newspapers, bar association publications, and international legal journals. While these resources may only provide an abstract of the article or publication you are interested in, often the full-text may be located through a more comprehensive database like HeinOnline or by using the eJournal Finder.

Legal Resource Index (formerly LegalTrac): requires Westlaw login

Index to Legal Periodicals and Books (1908 to present)

Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals (1960 to 2017)

Citation Databases

Web of Science is a collection of multidisciplinary citation databases, including Science Citation Index, Social Sciences Citation Index, the Arts & Humanities Citation Index, Current Chemical Reactions, and Index Chemicus. Because the information stored about each article includes the article's cited reference list (i.e., its bibliography), you can also search for articles that cite a known author or work.

Additional resources may also be found in our Electronic Resources, Databases: A-Z on the library’s webpage.  

When in doubt, ask a librarian.

Requesting a One-On-One Research Consultation

A team of six dual-degreed librarians (who have obtained both a JD and an MLIS) are standing by to meet with you one-on-one to discuss your specific research goals and objectives and will help you create an effective and efficient legal research strategy. Simply complete a request for a Student Research Consultation on the library’s website under Research at MacMillan, “Student Research.” A librarian will contact you to make arrangements for an individual meeting.

When in doubt, ask a librarian.

Subject Guide