Making Friends: The Basics of Legal Research

AuthorAllan C. Hutchinson
All law students need to do legal research at various times and for var-
ious reasons. In an important sense, the key to being a good lawyer
is not knowing tons of law, but knowing where and how to find the
law quickly and efficiently when required. It is futile to think that you
can learn everything you need to know and keep up-to-date as well.
Indeed, it would be a negligent lawyer who tried to work from mem-
ory. In your first year at law school, the likely reasons for doing legal
research will be to complete a memorandum of law, write a case com-
ment, prepare an essay, or look up and review the work of certain pro-
fessors. Later on, in articling and throughout your legal career, you
will use your research skills to an even greater extent than in law
school. Whether you are writing memoranda of law, factums, or
client letters, you will always benefit from a well-honed set of
research skills. In important ways, legal research is no different from
any other kind of research for writing: the only differences are the
places where you look and the tools that you use. All that you are
attempting to do, regardless of the purpose, is to find information.
making friends
the basics of legal research
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Like legal writing, legal research is simply a specialized form of
research. The law library, whether in physical or electronic form, is
first and foremost a place of reference; students do not so much read
materials from cover to cover as consult a variety of materials to glean
certain information and insights about the law. Finding your way
around these legal resources and turning this formidable maze into
a helpful friend rather than an inscrutable enemy is the first step to
success as a smart lawyer.
Today, any law student must be proficient in the use of a comput-
er and its gateway to the world of online research. If you have a dose
of technophobia, now is the time to overcome it — good and even
not-so-good lawyers must have a working grasp of how to do research
online. You must think of the law library as being truly huge; it
stretches from your law school library across cyberspace to include a
galaxy of ever-expanding information. To be an effective legal
researcher, you must be able to integrate old and new to your best
advantage: a mix-and-match approach is advisable. But you simply
cannot afford to treat research’s technological possibilities as any-
thing other than a boon, not a barrier. If you don’t appreciate it
already, the computer and its awesome access to the world can be the
best friend that you ever had.
Many books and articles have been written about legal research.
This chapter attempts to give you an overview of the way to do basic
legal research. If legal research becomes one of your passions, you
should (after seeking psychiatric help) refer to the other sources list-
ed in the bibliography at the end of the chapter. Accordingly, this
chapter will outline the basic tools and techniques of legal research
that you will need to perform a tolerable job in the early parts of your
law school career and to provide a good grounding for the rest of your
career. As such, this chapter is not about teaching you how to do the
actual research. But, it is about giving you a general overview of what
is out there, familiarizing you with some general approaches, and
suggesting how you might develop a realistic framework for the
acquisition of important and useful research skills. Like everything
else, it is only when you know the rules that you can bend them and
play with them to your own advantage and style. Accordingly, to be
158 / the law school book

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