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Legal Research Strategy

Paul L. Boley Law LibraryGet HelpResearch Strategy

Developing a strategy for legal research

The strategy outlined on the following pages is just one example of a step-by-step approach to legal research. Remember, research is almost never linear. You may begin at the first step and then go to the second step, or you may start at step one and skip ahead to the fourth. Before beginning your research keep the following in mind:

Always have a plan

The single most important aspect of successful legal research is the need for a PLAN. Before you begin, think about what you want to accomplish. Make yourself an outline describing what you know, and then make another outline describing how you will go about finding the information you do not know.

Maintain notes

Construct a useful note taking system. Take notes on your sources as you go along. Pay attention to which terms proved useful, which did not. Try not to duplicate your efforts. Write down full citation information as you go so you don’t have to go back and check again for a cite you missed.

Know when to ask for help

If you get stuck, take a break, or move on to something else. If you find yourself moving in circles, ask someone for their opinion of your strategy. You will not always be able to find an answer. Much of lawyering concerns cases of first impression, so sometimes what you are looking for simply does not exist.

Have a back-up plan

Remember also that much of the law is found in more than one source. Always consider alternatives in case the source you are seeking is unavailable.

Develop a strategy that works for you

The strategy set out below will not fulfill everyone’s needs. As you get more sophisticated and knowledgeable in a particular area, your strategy will change.

Research Strategy

Step One: Factual Analysis

Carefully and thoroughly go over the facts of your situation. Answer: who, what, where, when, how?

  1. Persons or parties involved? Group, class or status of persons involved? What is their relationship to each other?
  2. Item, location, or subject matter?
  3. Cause of action or legal theory? Is this a tort? Breach of contract? Is there a defense?
  4. Relief Sought. Money damages? Injunction? Criminal Penalties?

Step Two: Generate a research vocabulary

Think of terms and phrases that might be applied to your facts and issues. Be sure to come up with as many synonyms, antonyms, broader, narrower and related terms as possible.

SOURCES: Law Dictionaries, Legal Thesauri, Words and Phrases

Step Three: Collect background information

Use your research vocabulary as index and search terms for both online and manual sources.


  1. Legal Encyclopedias ——- AmJur2d, state encyclopedias.
  2. Law Review articles ——- Legal Periodicals Full Text , LegalTrac
  3. Treatises ——- Online Catalog, ALR’s, Restatements, Hornbooks, Nutshells, multi-volume texts.
  4. Looseleaf Services ——- CCH, BNA
  5. Practice Materials ——- CLE’s, Practice Manuals, Formbooks

Step Four: Identify and frame the issues (analyze the issues of your case)

Realize there may be issues and subissues. Try and distinguish the facts from the issues.

Step Five: Search for authority

Look for primary authority first. If no luck, try and find persuasive authority.

  1. Ask: Is there a Statute on point?

    Sources: Statutes at Large, USCCAN, USC, USCA, USCS, ORS, ORSA

  2. If so, are there also Administrative regulations?

    Sources: CFR, Federal Register, Oregon Administrative Rules, Bulletin.

  3. If there are no annotations to statutes on point, try a Legislative History.

    Sources: USCCAN, LexisNexis Congressional

  4. Ask: Are there Cases on point?

    Sources: West’s Digest System, LexisNexis, Westlaw

  5. Find an applicable Topic and Key Number in the Digest system, look for primary authority. If none, check for persuasive authority.

Step Six: Re-evaluate and re-analyze the issues

In the course of your research you may have come across a new issue. Go back and see if you missed anything after you became familiar with the area of law.

Step Seven: Update and verify authority

Sources: Shepard’s on LexisNexis; KeyCite on Westlaw

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