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Picking a Topic and Performing Research for your Advanced Writing Requirement (AWR): Performing research

Not sure how to pick a topic? How to start your research? How to update and evaluate your sources? When to stop? This guide will help.

Narrowing the GAP: ABA Report on Law Schools and the Profession

"It can hardly be doubted that the ability to do legal research is one of the skills that any competent practitioner must possess."

"In order to conduct legal research effectively, a lawyer should have a working knowledge of

  • the nature of legal rules and legal institutions,

  • the fundamental tools of legal research, and

  • the process of devising and implementing a coherent and effective research design"


    --- (Legal Education and Professional Development: An Educational Continuum, Report of the Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap (1992)).

Process of legal research

This is a very popular diagram mapping the process of legal research. (Created by Sarah Glassmeyer, Director for Content Development for CALI.)


What do you see when you look at the diagram? 

A linear step by step logical progression through available resources....


A maze of dead-ends and traps that leave you feeling lost and frustrated.

In reality, the process of legal research can be both.  But if you take the time to develop a resarch plan before you begin your research you can avoid many of the dead-ends and traps or at least be prepared for them when you encounter them.

Formulating and executing your research plan

Start with what you have*...READ IT!

Is it a case?  A statute?  A regulation? A law review article? The type of resource you start with will influence your research plan.  Generally, you can formulate a research plan by reading what you already have and using it to:

  • Gather concepts and vocabulary.
  • Analyze it for its relationship to other resources.
  • Find its sources.
  • Find sources that cite to it.
  • Understand its history.
  • Determine what its possible future might be.
  • Find commentary on your resource.

* if you have nothing, zero, zip, nada...go to a secondary source (law review article, book, treatise, nutshell, ALR, etc.) on a subject you are interested in and read it.

Research Plan checklist:

  • Read at least one resource on your topic.
  • Analyze the information you read.
  • Identify relevant vocabulary and concepts.
  • Determine the area of law related to your topic (statutory, common law, regulatory, state, federal).
  • Identify print resources that you may want to search before going to the electronic;
    • annotated statutes
    • caselaw digests
    • ALRs
    • encyclopedias.
  • Formulate effective search strategies using the vocabulary and concepts you have identified.
  • Identify electronic databases that may contain the relevant primary or secondary sources you need;
    • HeinOnline (older resources, law reviews, international legal resources, etc.);
    • Westlaw or LexisNexis;
    • Non-legal (background, public opinion);
    • ProQuest Congressional (U.S. government documents and legislative history);
    • LegalTrac (periodical index);
    • BNA collection (subject specific legal current events and news)
    • etc.
  • Formulate effective search queries for electronic searching using the vocabulary and concepts you have identified.
  • Perform your search.
  • Evaluate your results.
  • Repeat until you keep getting the same relevant results over and over again from multiple sources.

Updating and evaluating your results and knowing when to stop

Update each primary source electronically using KeyCite or Shepards to make sure your case or statute is still good law.

Evaluate each resource to establish the proper amount of focus you want to give it in your writing.

  • Is it the right jurisdiction?
  • Is it current or outdated?
  • Is it very broad with just a mention of your topic?
  • How often has the resource been cited too?
  • Is the author well-known? An expert?
  • Where was it originally published?  A prestigious journal or little known internet blog...
  • If it is an online resource, is it authentic?  Reliable?  Accurate?

Stop when you keep retrieving the same relevant resources and when those resources begin to repeat the same citations and quote the same authorities in footnotes, etc.  (Warning: make sure you have pulled all of these cited to works and authorities and either added them to your list of resources or discounted them for some reason.)

Computer Assisted Legal Research

Do not rely on broad Google searching to find reliable, authentic and accurate information.  Learn to recognize which resources are reliable.  The following are a few examples of the great resources available to help you to perform your research; some are free and some are subscription databases available through the library website.

FDsys (free):  provides free online access to official publications from all three branches of the Federal Government

Thomas (free): in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson provides free Federal Legislative information from the Library of Congress

HeinOnline (subscription): the world’s largest image-based collection of law and law-related documents.  Over 55 libraries including Legal Periodicals, New York Legal Research, Legal Classics, Treaties and Agreements, United Nations Law Collection and World Constitutions.

U.S. Courts (free): This site is maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on behalf of the Federal Judiciary. The purpose of this site is to provide information from and about the Judicial Branch of the U.S. Government.

BNA (subscription): Bloomberg BNA, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bloomberg, is a leading source of legal, regulatory, and business information for professionals. Its network of more than 2,500 reporters, correspondents, and leading practitioners delivers expert analysis, news, practice tools, and guidance — the information that matters most to professionals.  Bloomberg BNA’s authoritative coverage spans the full range of legal practice areas, including tax & accounting, labor & employment, intellectual property, banking & securities, employee benefits, health care, privacy & data security, human resources, and environment, health & safety.

State Codes and Session Laws (free): New York Senate website

State Administrative Registers (free): New York Department of State website