This five-step research process can be applied to almost any research project, but it’s important to remember that it is not a rigid formula. Be flexible. Sometimes you will get to step three and realize you should go back and revise your research plan. Other times you might have some preliminary knowledge, so you can start with step two or three. Sometimes, it's easier to do Steps 3 and 4(a) together.
Ultimately, the five steps provide structure for your research and can help you when you don’t know where to go next.
Here are the five steps:
1. Formulate a Research Plan
2. Consult Secondary Sources
3. Consult Primary Sources
4. (a) Expand Primary Law, and (b) Update Primary Law
5. Analyze & Organize Results
Step One: Formulate a Research Plan
Consider the following preliminary questions:
Generate search terms before you begin your research. This will help you to:
You may not be able to answer every preliminary question and that's okay. Part of the research process is identifying known and unknown information. Answer what you can, then move to Step 2.
Step Two: Consult Secondary Sources
Depending on your familiarity with a particular area of law, you will consult different types of secondary sources.
If you are unfamiliar with an area of law, consult General Secondary Sources such as:
If you are familiar with an area of law, consult Subject-specific Secondary Sources such as:
As you develop your knowledge of a particular area, subject-specific secondary sources become more useful.
Step Three: Consult Primary Sources
The secondary sources you consulted in Step 2 should lead you directly to primary sources via references and footnotes.
Once you find relevant primary sources, those primary sources should lead you to other relevant primary sources:
Step Four: Expand & Update Primary Law
Step Four has two parts: (a) expanding your research, and (b) updating the primary law that you’ve found to ensure that the law is still good law. Both parts rely on Shepard’s and/or KeyCite.
(a) Expand your research by looking at the cases that a case you've found cites to or that cite to that case; by exploring relevant headnotes in the cases you’ve already found to find other cases that cite to that case for the law in that headnote; or by using the Topic or Key Number system to find additional cases indexed under the same topic as a relevant case.
(b) Update your research (using either Shepard’s or KeyCite) to make sure that the cases, statutes, and regulations you plan to use in your argument haven’t been overruled or otherwise treated negatively; and to determine whether there is more recent case law that discusses the same issue.
Step Five: Analyze & Organize Results
In Step 5, analyze your research and, by extension, any arguments and drafts that you have started to write. Focus on the following:
If you need to return to research, go back to Steps One and Two.
University of Florida Levin College of Law
309 Village Drive
PO Box 117620
Gainesville, FL 32611