Before you begin your research assignment, be sure that you fully understand what is being asked of you. We recommend consulting the JUST ASK checklist of questions to ask when receiving a research assignment.
Jurisdiction – Do you need to look at federal law? If so, what circuit? State law? Administrative decisions? Some combination of the above?
Useful Tips – Does the assigning attorney have any suggestions for where to start? Are there any important experts, cases, documents, etc. that you need to know about?
Scope of Research - How much information does the attorney need? Is this an exhaustive search or just an overview? Ask for a deadline!
Terms of Art – Are there any key words or phrases that you need to know?
Acronyms – Clarify the spelling and meaning of any acronyms. Attorneys often use acronyms without realizing that people new to the field don’t know their meaning. Don’t be afraid to ask what an acronym stands for.
Sources – The assigning attorney is likely an expert in the field and knows of a “go-to” source in that area. Ask if there is a well-known treatise they recommend.
Key Cost Constraints – Are there any billing restrictions related to Lexis, Westlaw, document delivery services, etc.? How many hours should you spend on the project?
The first step when beginning a research assignment is to plan your strategy. We recommend starting by taking a minute to review the assignment, identify all relevant issues and developing a list of possible search terms. As you will see in all three strategies below, if you are not familiar with the legal issue, we always suggest starting with a secondary source to help you understand the context of the specific issue in the larger area of law, provide you with important phrases or terms or art, and direct you to the most important cases and statutes. You can find secondary sources by:
A complete case law strategy involves using multiple search methods such as keyword searching, using a citator such as Shepard's and using the headnote or digest system. For full details, see the Case Research page of this guide, but in short when researching a common law issue:
When researching statutes, it is important to start with the plain language of the statute. However, if you are researching a statutory issue, it is rare that the text of the statute alone will answer your research question. You will most likely need to look for cases interpreting the statute. For full details, see the Statutory Research page of this guide, but in short when researching a statutory issue:
Researching administrative law most often refers to research regulations. Fortunately, regulations on Lexis and Westlaw are annotated in the same was as statutes, so the strategies for researching them is very similar. For full details, see the Administrative Law page of this guide, but in short when researching a statutory issue:
As part of a cost-effective research strategy, we recommend making use of the folders on Lexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg. If you are working in an environment where there are charges associated with viewing or downloading documents, saving them to a folder can save you from being a second time if you need to view them again in the future. But saving documents to a folder is also an good way to keep track of your work. Make use of the highlight and annotation tools to take note of why you are saving the documents.
Since many research tasks will involve using multiple databases and websites, another useful tool you have access to is PowerNotes. With PowerNotes, you can gather information from any online resource. You highlight the relevant text, add any wanted annotations and PowerNotes will save the content to an online research project, similar to a folder on Westlaw or Lexis. But with PowerNotes, you can save content from any website or subscription databases such as Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg Law, HeinOnline, etc. in one place.
As you are adding sources to your research project in PowerNotes, an outline will be built for you as you go. As you are working, you can easily restructure your arguments by dragging and dropping sources to move them around within the outline. When you are ready to start writing, you can download your outline to Microsoft Word. It also the links to all your sources so you won’t forget where the information came from and you have all your citations saved in one place.
To get started, visit powernotes.com and download/install the PowerNotes extension into your Chrome browser. Create an account using your northwestern.edu email address.