X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
The great day has finally arrived — the day you have been dreaming of since you first decided to go to law school — your first real assignment for an actual law firm. More likely than not, this assignment is a legal research assignment. No problem, you think: I’ve taken legal writing. You walk happily up to the office of the assigning attorney to discuss the assignment. As you wait to be summoned inside, you reflect on your feelings. You are excited. You are proud. You are … suddenly terrified. You realize that you can’t remember the difference between a reporter and a digest, that the only bluebook form you can remember is the correct citation to the constitution of Fiji, and that, even though the firm tour ended only 10 minutes ago, you don’t even remember what floor the library is on, much less how to get back there. Even worse, you look down again at the assignment sheet and you notice that not only have you never even heard of any of the statutes mentioned in the assignment description, at the bottom of the page, it says, “Emergency Request — due tomorrow. Please limit electronic research.” Don’t panic. Although the skills you have learned as a law student will be of great value to you over the summer, it is true that legal research for a law firm is different than legal research for law school. There are two things that you have as a law student that you don’t have as a summer associate: unlimited time and unlimited Westlaw or Lexis use. If your legal writing professor asks you to research whether obesity is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can log into Westlaw to get your answers. You type “obese” into the ALLFEDS database and spend three hours paging through the 612 cases retrieved � all while watching television commercials and talking on the phone with a friend. No one will question that you were logged on for four hours. As a summer associate you will often be expected to do legal research using the dreaded “books.” And you will also be expected actually produce something at some point between breakfast with the head of the litigation department, a two-hour lunch with the labor associates, the scavenger hunt at 4 p.m, and the concert that starts immediately after. So, from our combined experience of four years of summer associateship at a large downtown Philadelphia firm, we are taking this opportunity to give you some pointers on getting to the “right” answer in a legal research assignment efficiently. There are four easy steps. STEP ONE: UNDERSTANDING THE ASSIGNMENT The first and most important step to being successful in any legal research assignment is to make sure you understand exactly what the assignment is. Your first instinct will be to sit quietly listening to the assignment, not to interrupt with embarrassingly simple questions and to flee the attorney’s office as quickly as possible. Fight this urge. Attorneys expect that you will ask questions regarding the facts and legal issues involved. They will certainly not be impressed if your final work product does not address the correct issues or is in the wrong format. One helpful technique is to listen to the attorney’s description of the assignment, and then repeat back to the attorney your understanding of the facts and legal issues involved. For example: “Let me see if I have this right. This is what you want. …” This will help you to identify areas where you are missing information or are not quite clear regarding the issues. And the attorney will often be reminded of facts or issues that will be helpful and/or necessary to you in completing the assignment simply by listening to his or her directions from your perspective. Don’t be afraid to ask questions regarding “basic” or “underlying” issues related to the assignment. Attorneys really do understand that you are not an expert in every area of substantive law. It may not be appropriate to expect the assigning attorney to explain all the nuances, but it is appropriate to ask for a quick and dirty explanation of a concept with which you are wholly unfamiliar. Also, don’t hesitate to go back to the attorney later on if you feel that it is necessary, whether it is because you think you may have missed something the first time or because your research makes it necessary. You can be sure that the assigning attorney would rather have you come back and “bother” him or her again than receive a final work product that is not correct or is not what he or she needed. Make certain you understand exactly what form your finished work product should take: A memorandum? A court brief? A letter to the client? A verbal report? All these different formats require that the information you gather be dealt with in different ways. Ask the attorney questions about what he or she expects — how aggressive a brief, what level of detail in a client letter. Last but not least, make certain both you and the attorney are clear about the timeline and deadline for the assignment. Find out not only when the final work product is due, but also whether the attorney needs or wants periodic reports or interim drafts. If the attorney is very relaxed about a deadline, try to press him or her for one, even if it is a flexible one that can be changed later. Every young attorney has at least one “war story” about the summer associate assignment they were given without a deadline that, one day at noon, suddenly was needed by 3 p.m. on the same day. Never miss a deadline. If the deadline is approaching and the project is not yet done, don’t simply let the deadline expire and hope that you can finish before the attorney “really needs” the work product and notices that you are late. Speak to the attorney honestly, and see if an extension of the deadline is possible, and if not, how the situation can be handled. STEP TWO: GETTING STARTED Find out about specialized resources. Finding out about the specialized resources that may be available to you can be the single most important part of your actual legal research. Many substantive areas of the law, such as tax, health care regulation, secured transactions, bankruptcy and labor law, have numerous specialized research resources. Frequently there will be one or more specialized reporters covering case law specific to that area, indexed and digested in particular ways. Also, if the law in that practice area is heavily regulated, there are likely to be specialized reporters dealing with published opinions or informational “letters” issued by regulatory agencies. Perhaps even more importantly, there are almost always specialized treatises, compilations, textbooks, outlines, summaries and other secondary sources, which can help guide you through your research in an area that may be totally unfamiliar to you. One of the best ways to find out about such specialized research resources is to ask an attorney who practices in that area of the law. If it just seems too intimidating to ask the assigning attorney, turn to an associate who practices in that area. Often the assigning partner can recommend someone. Also, your “mentor” or “preceptor” or your summer program coordinator will probably be able to connect you with associates who have the knowledge and willingness to help. If all else fails, pick the kindest looking associate in that department and knock on his or her door. No one will think any less of you for looking for help and almost everyone will be eager to help you. Although other attorneys can be extremely helpful, don’t forget about or underestimate the library staff. They are extremely knowledgeable, and, while other attorneys may be generous with their time, it is the library staff’s job to help you. Be nice to them, and they will take good care of you. Don’t reinvent the wheel. You should also ask your friendly associate whether anyone has done any work regarding your issue in the past. Particularly in a large firm, there is a good chance that someone has written a memorandum or a brief on the same or similar issue. While you would need to update and possibly expand the research, such a previous memo or brief can be a great place to start. Don’t overlook treatises. Never make the mistake of thinking that you are “wasting time” by beginning your research project with basic treatises, even in “general” areas of the law. One of the biggest mistakes people can make is jumping onto Lexis or Westlaw and trying to run extremely detailed searches, only to realize two days and 300 cases later that there is some fundamental aspect of the issue that they don’t understand. It is probably your smartest bet to spend at least a short time with a treatise, even if only to confirm that you do understand the issue. STEP THREE: BE THOROUGH Your guiding principal should be thoroughness. Frequently, an attorney will suggest that he or she only wants a “quick” answer. The best advice is to ignore this suggestion and always do a thorough job. The attorney will always want the right answer. This doesn’t mean that you have to read every case published since 1944 or produce a written product that could be published as a journal article. It does mean that you should be certain that you have the complete and correct answer, even if it takes more time than the attorney thought it would. Don’t worry. Experienced attorneys always underestimate the amount of time it will take a neophyte like yourself to research an issue. And the attorney may not have known that the issue in question is very complicated or hotly contested. Don’t forget to make certain that you have researched the state of the law in the relevant jurisdiction. When in doubt, do more research. Remember that at the end of the summer, the hiring committee will probably not care if you took a few extra hours to research something, but they will care if the assigning attorney was disappointed, or worse, embarrassed, because you missed something crucial in your research. One part of thoroughness is to take good notes as you research. Don’t risk forgetting about some crucial piece of information when preparing your final work product. Although it may not seem to at the time, taking detailed notes will save you time in the long run. Write down citations, in their correct bluebook form, in your notes so that you don’t have to find each one a second time when you write the memo. STEP FOUR: A GOOD FINAL PRODUCT Don’t forget that in the end, the assigning attorney will only see — and will only be able to evaluate — your finished work product. Make certain that it is as polished and professional as possible. If you have been asked to produce a written work product, make sure it is well-written. Be concise. Proofread the hard copy carefully. Make sure all of your citations are bluebooked correctly. If you have been asked to provide a verbal report, make an outline, even if you keep it to yourself, so that your presentation is organized and professional.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.