Executing a well thought out legal research plan is a lot like briefing cases. It’s drudgery at first, but it becomes a natural process after you’ve done it a few times. Those who don’t do it become stuck using the same poor technique or series of sources with no understanding of whether that technique will work or not. When all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. The best lawyers still brief cases. Very good lawyers brief cases mentally whether they know it or not. Good researchers record their actions in some manner, shape, or form. Once you become familiar with a particular area of law and its related research resources, your research process will become intuitive. Your search history and Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg can aid greatly with this part, but not every source is available through those three commercial services. So it’s important to have a log, separate of these research histories, even though there will be some overlap.
For now, here are six good reasons why you ought keep a "research log" for your first few assignments, followed by an example of one might look like:
- It’s helpful to have a a written record research log to keep track of sources consulted because, if your question changes slightly as you learn more about your legal topic, you will have a record of what has and hasn't been searched, what terms or techniques were used, and what the results were so you do not re-create the wheel and waste your own time.
- Keeping a research log will give you some assurance that you haven’t missed anything. You can compare your list of potential sources like treatises, law reviews, annotated codes, case databases etc. against what you’ve actually researched. This will give you confidence that there isn’t more information lurking out there somewhere that you ought to have found.
- If you need to consult with a partner, professor, or a librarian about your research, it would be most helpful to have a written record of what your searches have been and where you have looked. An expert will be able to determine whether there are sources that you should have searched, or whether your search terms need modifying, if you have a record.
- In the real world, whether you are clerking, have an externship, or you are a summer or young associate, if the answer turns out to be "I cannot find an answer," you will need to prove that result is justified. The best way to do that is by presenting the assigning attorney with your research log based on your research strategy and searching.
- If you have to set aside your research project for any length of time, a research log will help you by identifying where you have been, and what you have learned. Again, don’t re-create the wheel. If every time you sit in front of a computer you start fresh, you’re going to waste a lot of precious time, and you will have no confidence that you found everything that there is to find because you have no list or record.
- Finally, as you are researching, you will probably identify sources that seem interesting, or possibly helpful, but that may be outside the scope or focus of your current research. Write those down and keep them somewhere--perhaps in a separate folder labelled "maybe." Never look serendipity in the mouth. Often times skillful researchers end up finding very good resources or bits of information in places they never thought they’d be. Don’t lose the opportunity to take advantage of this information simply because you failed to record its existence when you had the opportunity.
What a sample research log might look like:
Sample Research Log
Next steps/ Citations Found
Derived from Robert M. Linz, Research Analysis and Planning: The Undervalued Skill in Legal Research Instruction, Legal Reference Services Quarterly, 34:1, 60-99 (2015).
There are countless ways to stylistically complete an academic essay. Here are some examples of how students have successfully done so, while maintaining proper academic structure.
A proper introduction should:
- Introduce main arguments
- Have an attention grabbing first sentence
- Provide concise information about broader significance of topic
- Lead in to the body of the essay
Here are three examples of introduction paragraphs. They have been re-written several times to illustrate the difference between excellent, good and poor answers. For a close reading of the examples, click the images below.
Example 1Example 2Example 3
The body of your essay should:
- Address one idea per paragraph
- Support arguments with scholarly references or evidence
- Contextualise any case studies or examples
- Use correct punctuation and proofread your work
- Keep writing impersonal (do not use 'I', 'we', 'me')
- Be concise and simple
- Be confident ("The evidence suggests..." rather than "this could be because...")
- Connect paragraphs so they flow and are logical
- Introduce primary and secondary sources appropriately
- Avoid using too many quotations or using quotes that are too long
- Do not use contractions (you’re, they’d)
- Do not use emotive language ("the horrific and extremely sad scene is evidence of...")
This example illustrates how to keep an essay succinct and focused, by taking the time to define the topic:
Defining a topic
Lastly, this paragraph illustrates how to engage with opposing arguments and refute them:
ConclusionA proper conclusion should:
- Sum up arguments
- Provide relevance to overall topic and unit themes
- Not introduce new ideas
Example 1 Example 2