Category Archives: Advice for summer jobs

Student Guest Post: Summer Public Interest Jobs

[Today I have another terrific guest post from one of my former students, Ginger Tanton, who worked in a public interest job last summer and loved it. Ginger plans to go into public interest work after law school, and believes there are many benefits for students from working in summer public interest jobs regardless of their career plans following law school.]

Summer Public Interest Jobs

By Ginger Tanton, 2L at Northwestern University School of Law

Summer jobs are obviously a common topic for 1L’s and 2L’s alike.  For students who plan to work mainly in the public interest after law school, public interest 1L jobs are often an obvious choice.  However, 1L public interest jobs offer many benefits for students regardless of their post-law school career plans.

A few disclaimers: I’m writing for myself, a student who came to law school with very specific public interest law goals for the future.  I worked in a large nonprofit over the summer, and the following is based on my own experiences and those of friends who spent their 1L summers in nonprofits as well.  While working in a nonprofit is clearly not the only way to do legal public interest work, that’s my experience and what I speak to in this post.

The Benefits of Public Service Work

  • Real clients with real problems right now.  Everyone I know who has worked in a public interest job in the summer was put to work immediately.  Most public interest organizations have more demand than they have time, so even 1L’s step up to the substantive plate right away.  In my first week, I did client intake solo.  In my first month, I represented a client at a hearing in front of an ALJ.  By the end of the summer, I had written an appellate brief for the Illinois Supreme Court.  At times, it was close to overwhelming, but my supervisor was extremely good about providing a reasonable amount of guidance, and I learned more than I would have thought possible.
  • Close, helpful supervision.  In a related point, my level of supervision was terrific.  I was given a lot of work to do, but I generally watched a task once, then did it under close supervision, and then did it on my own with the understanding that help was always close by.  It was a good way to build comfort level with new material but still get to work almost immediately.
  • Mentorship.  In addition to great supervision, my organization provided good mentorship.  I had regular meetings with my supervisor, and I was welcome to talk to her about work or school or career questions.  She was great about helping get projects tailored to my specific interests, and she’s been helpful in making career contacts too.
  • Observe/participate in decision making.  The last really helpful point from this summer was the opportunity to sit in and participate in collective decision making.  Many public interest organizations have case acceptance meetings (or “CAMs”) to decide which cases to take on for representation, and I was made a part of these meetings, literally at the table.  Since I took over my supervisor’s intake responsibilities for most of the summer, I did presentations at almost all of these CAMs and then got to observe the process of lawyers making decisions.  It was a great window into the function of the organization.

Doing Public Interest Work Well

Just a few final thoughts on doing public interest work well if you do end up in a nonprofit.  Remember that you are there to zealously advocate for your clients- they are not there to provide you with interesting problems or to give you a chance to practice your skills (although these things are happy bonuses).  Also, take it easy with the “when I’m at a firm” talk.  First, you don’t have a firm yet, and second, you don’t want to insult the people around you who love their jobs.

Student Guest Post: Summer Judicial Externship!

A common and useful summer legal position that many law students pursue is a judicial externship with a federal or state judge. A number of my 1L students from last year recently completed summer judicial externships. I asked one of my students, Dan Faichney, to write a guest post about his experience as an extern to Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Dan’s excellent post appears below. Feel free to pose questions in the Comments section.

Order in the Court (and on Paper): What I Learned as a Judicial Extern

            By Daniel Faichney

I.                   About Me

My name is Dan Faichney. I am a second-year law student at Northwestern University. I’m also a member of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology here at NU. Before coming to law school, I served as a Program Director for a nonprofit organization in Chicago. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Michigan, and a Master of Nonprofit Administration degree from North Park University. Last year, I was a student in Professor Inglehart’s Communication and Legal Reasoning (“CLR”) class. In my spare time, I enjoy long-distance cycling, improv, and film photography.

II.                My 1L Summer Judicial Externship

                   A.     In General

During my 1L summer, I served as an Extern to the Honorable Ruben Castillo, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois. Concurrently, I participated in Northwestern’s Judicial Practicum class with Professors Spies-Roth and Dillingham. Many other members of the Class of 2014 served as Judicial Externs in Chicago over the summer, and still more served as Externs elsewhere around the country. If you’re interested in litigation practice, or if you intend to pursue a Judicial Clerkship after law school, externships offer an excellent opportunity to hone your legal writing skills and observe oral advocacy in action.

You’ll hear more about externships during this year, but one thing you might like to know now is that no two externship opportunities are alike: judges at both the State and Federal level, in trial courts as well as appellate courts, accept externs. In addition to serving as an Extern in a court of general jurisdiction, you may also pursue an opportunity in a specialized court: Federal Bankruptcy Courts host externs, as do state Domestic Relations Courts and many others. The common thread that runs through each of these opportunities is the opportunity to produce written work on live cases. I found this opportunity invaluable, and accordingly I would now like to share some thoughts on it with you.

B.     Written Assignments

Although each judge structures externships differently, it is safe to say that all externs research and write. During my externship, I worked on three assignments: two draft opinions, and one memorandum. The opinions addressed pending motions before the Court, and the memorandum addressed a novel issue arising under a federal statute. At the outset of all three assignments, my Judge’s law clerks met with me to discuss the assignment; they also printed all of the relevant material from the record.

My opinion drafts addressed two different stages of litigation, the first an earlier stage (before discovery, or the production of evidence) and the second a later stage (after the parties had entered much of the evidence into the record). Because the second opinion assignment required me to make considerable use of the record in order to conduct the necessary law-to-fact analysis, it took more time to complete. I learned a great deal while doing so.

From a factual standpoint, my memorandum assignment was less complex than either of the two opinions. From a legal standpoint, however, it took in a vast array of issues, both procedural and substantive. As you may already know, unlike a court opinion, the objective of a legal memo is not to decide an issue, but to analyze it. The audience is a decision-maker, whether that be a judge or another attorney. Hence, in my memo assignment, my goal was to identify and analyze all of the potential issues that might arise in connection with the matter before the Court. In this way, it both surveyed the case law related to the issue and placed the matter before the Court in the context created by that case law. Since memo-writing technique was familiar to me from CLR, I believe that I worked more efficiently on this assignment as compared with the other two.

During CLR, you will learn how to organize your research and structure your written work. As an Extern, I found that the research skills and writing techniques I learned in CLR were transferrable. Additionally, in Judge Castillo’s chambers, the iterative writing process – facts, then outline, then the first draft, and finally the second draft – was familiar, too. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll walk though the opinion writing process. I’ve chosen to write about the opinion writing process instead of the memo writing process because it generates a type of written product that CLR students do not produce. In explaining how the process works, I hope to highlight, by example, the commonalities between this type of writing and the writing you will do in CLR .

To begin my assignments, I met with my supervising law clerk to discuss the matter before the court and receive the necessary filings (i.e. briefs and other supporting documents). I then began reviewing the filings. After doing so, I drafted a facts section. This helped me to spell out what happened and clarify what was at stake. It also generated a tangible written product. With this product in hand, I met with one of the Judge’s law clerks to discuss the next steps. Since I had read through the filings by this point, I had a basic understanding of the arguments made by each side. I discussed these arguments and the key facts with my supervising law clerk and, with her feedback, began creating an outline. This outline included the arguments made by each party as well as the case law authorities they cited.

Next, I began conducting my own research. Since it is necessary to make sure that the parties have fully and fairly stated the doctrine, I checked the cases cited by the parties and also looked to other sources. I started with treatises, and from there I read other cases until I had a good sense of the state of the law. While outlining styles vary widely from person to person, I found it helpful to make a long but thorough outline first and remove the redundant or unnecessary material later. After my research began going “in circles” – that is, when it turned up the same rules and similar fact situations again and again – I trimmed my outline and prepared to begin the next stage: writing a draft.

Before I started working on the draft, I met again with my supervising law clerk.  At these meetings, she provided feedback on my research and analysis. With these comments – and a solid outline in hand – I began to write. Writing was much less daunting with a comprehensive outline in hand. All the same, it took time and attention to considerations that became relevant at this stage. For instance, each Judge structures his or her opinions differently, and each has a preferred writing style. One of my responsibilities as an Extern was to make sure that my writing adhered to these standards. Judges may give you a manual, or provide training, on their standards; it is also possible to pick up cues from past opinions. I used all the resources I could find. In writing a draft, the expectation – and, hence, my goal – was that the product be publishable. To achieve this goal, I read and re-read my draft, and generally proceeded carefully: I checked each source, citation, and sentence for errors, and made sure that the writing was clear and logical. When – as in the research phase – I felt as though I was going “in circles,” I knew I had reached the end of this stage.

After completing my initial draft and meeting with my supervising law clerk a second time, I made another round of edits and turned in my final draft. At this stage, the law clerks and Judge may or may not make considerable further changes to the written product. Regardless of any changes they make, however, your work as an Extern will likely make a significant contribution the final opinion. If you have taken the necessary care to be thorough and clear, this contribution will no doubt be valuable to the Judge and to his or her law clerks.

III.     Lessons Learned

While completing my assignments, I learned two important lessons: (1) get a good sense of what is expected of you before starting your project, and (2) be as thorough as your schedule permits you to be.

As to the first point, most Judges and law clerks will provide you with clear directions. Follow them closely. It might help to create a checklist based on the instructions you’ve been given. As you go, you may find that you need to seek clarification on some things: page limits, word limits, expectations about time spent doing research, rules governing citations, substantive legal issues, and more. Instead of assuming or guessing what your Judge or supervising law clerks expect of you, just ask. At a couple of points during my research and writing process, well-timed answers to important questions saved me a lot of time and helped me to do a better job. Speaking of timing, if you’re worried about something, don’t wait until the last minute to bring it up: do it promptly, be upfront, and you’ll save yourself and your supervisors many headaches.

Secondly, it is important to be thorough and timely. If your Judge gives you deadlines, or expects you to complete a defined number of assignments over the summer, develop a delivery schedule and see if your supervising law clerk or Judge approves. It may make more sense to do this on an assignment-by-assignment basis, and the schedule may change depending on the nature of the matter before the Court. Nevertheless, if you establish some guideline, you’ll be able to manage your workload better and will avoid falling into legal research “rabbit holes” (those points where you start seeing diminishing returns on your effort). Once you have some baseline expectations in place, you’re free to hit – as you should – all of the pertinent issues, without fear that you might run out of time.

IV.                Conclusion

This summer, I put my legal research and writing skills to work as a Judicial Extern. In the process of doing so, I learned a great deal about researching and writing efficiently and effectively. Whether you choose to pursue an Externship or another opportunity, know that what you learn in your first-year legal writing class will provide you with a useful repertoire of techniques. Know, also, that a solid understanding of project management skills  – understanding the relevant expectations, establishing a schedule, organizing your resources, and making the necessary adjustments as you go – will help you to succeed. As a law student, I’ve learned that thoroughness, accuracy, and efficiency are all important elements of good legal writing. As an Extern, I’ve moved closer to achieving a good balance between the three.

Part 1 of Interview with Litigation Attorney Maura McIntyre

As promised, today I’m posting the first part of my recent interview with Maura McIntyre.  Ms. McIntyre is a fifth year commercial litigation associate at Ungaretti & Harris LLP in Chicago. She earned her undergraduate degree from Boston College in English and Philosophy.  She then earned her J.D. from the University of Illinois College of Law, where she served as Notes Editor of the University of Illinois Law Review.

In the first installment of my interview, I asked Ms. McIntyre to give us a picture of her daily life practicing litigation at a large urban law firm. As I noted in a earlier post, Ms. McIntyre has graciously agreed to answer your follow-up questions, so feel free to ask follow-up questions in the Comments section following the post. The future installments of this interview will focus on what she learned from her experiences as a beginning associate and on her more recent experience supervising junior associates.

INTERVIEW, PART ONE:

Q [Elizabeth Inglehart]: Where do you work and how long have you worked there?

A [Maura McIntyre]: I work at Ungaretti & Harris LLP in Chicago.  I started working at Ungaretti as a Summer Associate in 2006 and have worked there as a commercial litigation associate since September of 2007.

Q:        What’s your practice area? Or do you have more than one?

A:        I am in the Litigation Department at Ungaretti, but I also work with attorneys in Ungaretti’s Labor & Employment, Healthcare, and Trusts & Estates Departments from time to time.

Q:        What made you choose to join a relatively large firm rather than a small one, and what made you choose litigation rather than corporate or another practice area?

A:        I ended up choosing a large firm for the same reasons that many law students choose large firms – it had a summer associate program.  When I started as a summer associate at Ungaretti, I was interested in a number of different practice areas, including litigation, corporate, and healthcare.  Throughout the summer, I worked with many attorneys in each of those departments and asked them questions about their experiences, what they liked and disliked about their practice, etc.  Before I received my offer, I was asked to rank the practice groups that I would want to work with if I returned as a first year associate.  Litigation was my first choice; I enjoyed most of the assignments I received from the attorneys in the litigation group and I thought that we would work well together in the future.  There was no single deciding factor for me—it just felt like the best fit at the time.   Fortunately, I ended up in the right place, but I recommend talking to attorneys who practice in areas of interest to you and taking your long term career goals into account before committing to a particular practice area.

Q:        What kinds of cases do you work on?

A:        I work on a wide variety of cases proceeding in both state and federal courts, including commercial contract, employment, real estate, product liability, defamation, intellectual property, and insurance coverage disputes.

Q:        Tell us about your daily life as a lawyer. How many cases do you usually have open? How many are usually active at one time? How many hours do you usually work per day? Per week? Per month? What does a typical day look like? What kinds of activities do you do each day and what percentage of time do you spend on each? Anything else you think law students would like to know about your daily practice life?

A:        My daily life as a lawyer has greatly evolved over the past five years.  As a first and second year associate, I was consistently staffed on four or five active cases and assisted with other cases as needed.  If I was staffed on a case, I was typically responsible for researching legal issues that arose during the course of the litigation, drafting various motions, assisting in drafting and responding to written discovery requests, reviewing documents in preparation for depositions, and representing clients at status hearings and case management conferences. As you may have guessed, if I was brought on another case “as needed,” it was often to assist with document review.

            As I moved from a junior to a mid-level associate, I began taking on more responsibility in my cases.  I am currently staffed on twelve or thirteen active cases, including a few pro bono matters.  I try to spend at least a few hours on each matter every week.  My responsibilities vary depending on the complexity of the case and the number of other attorneys involved at my firm.  Typically, however, I am responsible for drafting pleadings and dispositive motions, drafting and responding to written discovery requests, interviewing clients, preparing witnesses for depositions, taking and defending depositions, negotiating settlements, drafting settlement agreements, and representing clients at various court proceedings.

Every day is different.  I try to get into the office every day between 8:30 a.m. and 9:15 a.m., but I never seem to leave at the same time.  Today, for example, I got to the office around 8:30 a.m., spent two hours in state court arguing a number of contentious motions, an hour responding to emails and updating my colleagues on the status of various matters, three hours preparing for and participating in a settlement conference on behalf of a pro bono client, and an hour revising and preparing to file an answer in a new federal lawsuit.  I left the office around 6:45 p.m. and spent a few hours this evening reviewing research performed by a junior associate in preparation to discuss litigation strategy with a partner tomorrow morning.  It was a busy day.  Tomorrow, however, I will likely spend the majority of the day behind my desk reviewing deposition transcripts and conducting research in preparation to draft a motion for summary judgment.

As for my hours, like most firms, my firm has a minimum billable requirement.  With that in mind, I try to bill 170-180 hours a month.  Unfortunately, there is a great ebb and flow in litigation – so I often end up billing 140 hours one month and 215 the next.

A blog of advice for law students and law graduates

I just came across an interesting blog by Wolters Kluwer, a law and business publisher that publishes materials for attorneys and for law students, including law school case books, study aids, and more. The blog, aimed at an audience of law students and young lawyers, is called “Becoming a Lawyer,” and can be found at http://bal.wolterskluwerlb.com/category/pre-law/

The blog categorizes its posts under a number of topics including: “Pre-law,” “1L,” “2L and 3L,” “Bar Review,” and “Job Advice.”

Presenting Your Legal Research to a Partner: A Guide. Part Two: Presenting your Research

Part Two: Presenting your Research

(For Part One, see post from June 12)

In Part One of this post, I gave advice on how to clearly identify what your supervisor (whom we are calling “the partner”) wants you to do when you’re given a legal research assignment, and how to design and follow an effective research process. Now assume that you’ve finished your research and the partner has asked you to come to her office to report your results. Here in Part Two, I’ll advise you on how to verbally present your research findings and resulting advice in a meeting between you and the partner.

  • Focus on the needs of your audience. Think of the partner as your internal client. That is, the partner has needs, and it’s your job to meet those needs. In a nutshell, the partner’s needs in this meeting are to get from you a clearly articulated answer to the question the partner asked, and an assessment of what to do next. Most likely, what the partner wants you to do in the meeting is to have an answer to the research question, articulate that answer clearly and directly and in terms of the law’s impact on your client’s specific fact situation, present the partner with the main legal sources from which you derived that answer, and advise the partner on what to do next. (This last step may mean telling the partner your opinion as to whether the client should file a claim in court, make a settlement offer, make a motion, obtain discovery, or some other action). The partner doesn’t want an abstract summary of the relevant law; she wants you to explain how the relevant law applies to your client, and she wants you to advise her on what to do.
  • Prepare for the meeting. The partner is busy and is trying to balance multiple cases. Don’t waste her time. To make the meeting as efficient and productive as possible, prepare for the meeting beforehand and plan carefully what you want to get across. Figure out what your audience wants to know and focus your presentation on presenting that information. Remind yourself of what the partner asked you to find out and prepare a direct answer to that question. Anticipate the follow-up questions the partner would be likely to ask and prepare answers to those questions. If in your research you have identified arguments that your opponent will likely make, prepare to discuss those and to discuss how you can counter those arguments.
  • Start with the answer, then fill in the support. Be ready to begin the meeting with a 5 to 10 minute speech that explains what you learned in your research process.
    • Start by reminding the partner what client matter you are discussing and what question(s) she asked you to answer.
    • Next, give the partner a short answer (a few sentences) to the research question(s). This should be similar to an executive summary, or to a Short Answer or Preliminary Statement in a memo or brief. What’s the bottom line? What are the rights and/or liabilities of your client?
    • After giving the partner the short answer, go back and explain the supporting explanation in more detail. This is the stage at which you explain the relevant law. If there is a controlling statute and/or regulation, begin with that and explain what it says. Then briefly summarize the most relevant individual cases and explain how  each one is analogous to or distinguishable from your client’s situation, and what the result is for your client under the case law as a whole.
  • How to talk about your research findings:
    • Don’t talk to the partner as if she knows more than you do about your research issue. On this issue, having done the research, you are the expert. So explain the law to the partner from your expert perspective. Do not just hand the partner a pile of cases and expect her to make sense of them. It is up to you to digest and synthesize the law and then explain your synthesis to the partner.
    • If there is a controlling statute or regulation, give the partner a copy. If it is long, highlight the relevant language.
    • Don’t present too much extraneous information.  If you found 20 relevant cases, pick out the few (perhaps four or five) most relevant ones to discuss in the meeting, and then tell the partner that there are 15 more and offer to give them to the partner. (See Part One for tips about the form in which to deliver the case law).
    • Be prepared to be questioned by the partner. Try to anticipate the questions the partner is likely to have and be prepared to answer them.
    • Bring all the written material you will need to answer questions during the meeting.
    • Bring (or deliver electronically before the meeting) copies of the most important authorities for the partner to keep. Mark the copies with highlighting and/or notes to point out how each authority relates to your issue.
    • Don’t present the law more favorably than it actually is. Tell the partner what she needs to know, not what you think she wants to hear.
      • On the other hand, do identify the strongest arguments your client could make under the controlling law. But offer a realistic assessment of how likely these arguments are to prevail.
  • Ending the meeting. End your presentation by briefly reiterating your answers to the research questions and your advice about how this affects your client. Then ask the partner what next steps she would like you to take, if any. Thank her for her time.
  • Keep a record. Be sure to keep records of both your research process and your research results. The partner may come back to you months from now wanting a reminder of what you found out, and you may not remember without referring to your records. You will thank yourself later for keeping excellent records. Westlaw Next and Lexis Advance are new platforms for Westlaw and Lexis that have very useful foldering functions – take advantage of these for storage of research on individual matters.

The Importance of Correct Grammar and Usage in Workplace Writing

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article about the prevalence of grammatical and other usage errors in workplace writing, particularly as the use of informal communication methods such as email, Twitter, texting, and other social media increases. The article can be found here:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303410404577466662919275448.html?mod=ITP_personaljournal_0

The article notes that employers still demand correct grammatical usage in the written work product of their employees, regardless of the method of delivery. Or, in Plain English (ha ha! inside grammar joke!), the fact that you may be writing to your senior partner or to a client in an email is no excuse for incorrect grammar. Your audience will still expect the same level of correctness and formality whether you are writing a memo, brief, client letter, or email. And if you deliver a product that sounds like a Tweet from Rihanna, your audience won’t respect your delivery or your message.

Luckily, there are plenty of useful resources out there for sophisticated writers who want to perfect their use of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and style. I’ll discuss a few in this post.

Ben Yagoda of The New York Times recently blogged about the most common mistakes in comma usage. Correct usage of commas may seem unimportant to the uninitiated, but the failure to place commas correctly can change the meaning of a sentence or render its meaning ambiguous. Here’s the NYT post:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/21/the-most-comma-mistakes/?smid=FB-nytimes&WT.mc_id=OP-E-FB-SM-LIN-TMC-052212-NYT-NA&WT.mc_ev=click

That Ben Yagoda post is part of the NY Times’ blog entitled “Draft,” which the Times describes as featuring “essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing.” You can find other posts in the “Draft” blog at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/draft/

I’m also rather excited about a new online grammar product for lawyers from Carolina Academic Press (“CAP”), available at http://www.coregrammarforlawyers.com/. It’s called “Core Grammar for Lawyers”, which CAP describes as “an online, self-directed learning tool designed to help law students, pre-law students, paralegal professionals, and practicing attorneys acquire the grammar and punctuation skills that are prerequisites to successful legal writing.”

This interactive online learning tool includes the following:

  • a Pre-Test of general and law-specific grammar skills;
  • online Lessons on each tested topic;
  • interactive practice Exercises following each Lesson;
  • an Index of Grammar Rules for students to use as a reference; and
  • Post-Tests to confirm mastery.

Finally, I’ll mention a few good grammar and usage books, some classic, some less well-known:

William Strunk, The Elements of Style (update 2011 edition);

Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Elements of Legal Style;

William Zinsser, On Writing Well;

Joseph Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th edition)

Presenting Your Legal Research to a Partner: A Guide for Summer Associates and Young Associates. Part One: The Successful Research Process

 

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