Part One: The Successful Research Process
By this point in June you have probably been at your summer job for a couple of weeks. Chances are that you have been, or soon will be, asked to research a legal issue and then report to another attorney at your job. This may be a partner, senior associate, general counsel, or other superior. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call this person “the partner.” The prospect of verbally reporting research to a superior often strikes fear into the hearts of summer associates (and even young First or Second Year Associates). It need not, if you take the process seriously and prepare adequately for it. I’ve written two related posts about how to achieve this. The first post focuses on how to research your assigned issue most effectively. The second post focuses on how to verbally present the results of your research to the partner.
Let’s say you’ve been called into the partner’s office and asked to research an issue and get back to the partner verbally with your answer. What follows are my top pieces of advice for how to proceed from there.
- First, clarify exactly what the partner wants you to do next. Does she want a verbal report? Does she want a written work product? If so, what form does she want it to take – full memo? Short memo? Email? For purposes of this post, we’ll assume she wants a verbal report — at least as the first work product.
- The partner will expect you to keep track of your research. Also ask her whether she would like copies of the most relevant statutes and/or cases you find, and if so, whether she would prefer hard copies or an electronic version (perhaps in folders on Lexis Advance or Westlaw Next). In either case, ask her if she would like the copies to be marked with your highlights and key comments.
- Ascertain your due date. How soon does the partner want the answer? Hours? Days? At your convenience?
- Ascertain the approximate amount of time the partner wants you to spend doing the research. Are there client-imposed limits on the amount of time you should spend or the sources you should use; for example, are there any limits on the use of paid electronic databases such as Lexis or Westlaw?
- Most importantly, be sure you understand what legal question (or questions) the partner wants you to answer – and whether there are any legal questions that you should avoid looking into.
- The above should involve learning the facts that the partner believes you need to know to research the issue. Ask the partner to tell you the basic fact situation. Ask her, too, where you can find out other facts if you need to. Is there a client interview written up? Are there discovery documents you should refer to? Is there anyone you should call?
- Ascertain whether there is a relevant jurisdiction. Does the partner want to know only what the law is in a particular state or federal jurisdiction, or does she want a general survey of what the law in most jurisdictions says?
- As you begin to research, and throughout the process, keep track of your research process. This will save you from needlessly repeating steps later. Also, the partner may well want to know where you looked, so that she can ascertain, when you meet with her, whether you missed any relevant sources.
- Think outside the box in terms of research sources; don’t limit yourself to Lexis and Westlaw. Consider consulting sometimes overlooked sources like print treatises, free internet websites (government websites can be particularly useful), and non-legal databases. Don’t stop with primary sources; remember the secondary sources (treatises, law review articles, encyclopedias, ALR articles, etc.) that you learned about in your legal writing class.
- Also remember that research sources can include human beings! Consider whether the firm has any attorneys who are well-versed in this area of law. They may be able to help you learn the basic legal principles very efficiently. Also make liberal use of the experience and knowledge of the firm librarians and firm Lexis and Westlaw representatives or Research Attorneys through the Lexis and Westlaw 800 numbers.
- What to look for first in your research process: The first and most important question in any legal research process is whether there is any enacted law – Constitutional provisions, statutes, regulations, and/or international treaties – that governs your legal issue. Ascertain this first. If there is controlling enacted law, obtain it, read it carefully, and figure out what requirements it sets up. For example, if there is a statute or regulation, does it contain required elements? If so, list them for yourself. This is the first thing you will need to tell the partner.
- What to look for second in your research process: If enacted law controls your issue, case law interpreting that enacted law will still be relevant. Remember that enacted law can be a great source to find interpretive case law. For example, an annotated statute will list interpretive case law in the annotations following the text of the statute.
- After doing your initial research (and getting a preliminary sense of the answer to your research question(s)), you may want to have a brief verbal conversation or email exchange with the partner to report on your findings thus far and to check whether the partner wants you to continue in the same direction or perhaps change course or even stop the research.
Coming soon…. Part Two: Presenting your Research to the Partner