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Levin College of Law

Conducting Legal Research

Resources and tips for conducting legal research .

Five Steps of Legal Research

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

The Five Steps

Step One: Formulate a Research Plan

Consider the following preliminary questions:

  • Legal question(s) that you need to answer
  • Parties & the relationship between the parties
  • Area(s) of law
  • Jurisdiction
  • Most relevant facts
  • Legal terms of art

Generate search terms before you begin your research. This will help you to:

  • Navigate indexes and tables of contents, and conduct keyword searches; and
  • Create both natural language and terms and connectors search terms.

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:

  • Legal Encyclopedias, either state-specific, e.g., Florida Jurisprudence 2d (FlaJur); or national, e.g., American Jurisprudence 2d (AmJur) or Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS)
  • American Law Reports (ALR)
  • General law journals (e.g., Florida Law Review)

If you are familiar with an area of law, consult Subject-specific Secondary Sources such as:

  • Treatises focused on a discrete area of law (e.g., Wharton’s Criminal Law)
  • Restatements (e.g., Restatement (Second) of the Law of Torts)
  • Subject-specific law journals (e.g., Florida Journal of International Law or Harvard Environmental Law Review)

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:

  • Annotated codes and regulations lead you to case law, other code sections, and secondary sources.
  • Cases lead you to authorities they rely upon – statutes, regulations, and other cases.

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:

  • Identify gaps in your writing and/or analysis by reviewing each sentence/paragraph/argument and asking:
    •  Do I need to cite a primary authority here?
      • Yes = return to research
      • No = move forward
    • Does my argument have all the necessary components?  E.g., if there are five factors in a legal test, have I addressed all five factors?
      • Yes = move forward
      • No = return to research
    • Are the facts from the cases that I’ve found sufficiently analogous to the facts of my case?
      • Yes = move forward
      • No = return to research

 If you need to return to research, go back to Steps One and Two.

  • Review and amend your search terms.
    • Try a different jurisdiction to see if there are synonyms for the terms you have used.
    • Try natural language searches instead of terms and connectors (or vice versa).
  • Go back to secondary sources.
    • Try to find a subject-specific source (treatise, journal article).
    • Use different finding methods to identify secondary sources (indexes, tables of contents, annotated codes).