Five Legal Research Tips for Law Students in Summer Jobs

If you’re a law student, you may be tearing your hair out on a legal research task in your summer job at this very moment. Below is a list of five tips pertaining to legal research to help you through it. This post is geared both toward students who have unfettered access to Lexis Advance, WestlawNext, or other paid platforms, and toward those who have limited access to such platforms.

  1. Confirm your understanding of the task. Chances are that when your supervising attorney gives you a research task, she hasn’t totally thought through it yet. This may lead to a misunderstanding of the task at hand. It’s critical that you confirm your understanding of the research task prior to beginning your research. That means either repeating the task orally–in your own words–or sending the supervising attorney an email confirming your understanding. This gives you the opportunity to hone your understanding of the project and gives the supervising attorney a chance to reflect on the task and make any necessary adjustments.
  2. Begin with the Forbidden. If your legal research & writing professor told you to stay away from Wikipedia entirely, she was–I cannot say this more emphatically–absolutely incorrect. I have given students research tasks that can be accomplished in a fraction of the time by using free tools such as Wikipedia strictly as a jumping off point. Let’s take Confrontation Clause research, for example. Here’s a little hypo: Your employer, a criminal defense attorney, explains that, at trial, the prosecution presented DNA evidence processed by an outside laboratory that was unavailable for cross-examination at trial. The client would like to appeal the conviction based upon the “confrontation right” mandated by the U.S. Constitution.  Your job is to gather some background information for the supervising attorney, including the basic SCOTUS precedent. You don’t know anything about the “confrontation right,” so where do you start? A secondary source in WestlawNext? Maybe a legal encyclopedia? Not a bad idea. But the preliminary research on this task can be accomplished in 2-3 minutes by searching “confrontation right” in Google, and reviewing the first search result: Wikipedia. Now, it’s still true that one shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia for research; all information should be confirmed in a more reliable source. However, as a jumping off point in legal research, Wikipedia is a goldmine. In fact, the Confrontation Clause entry bundles most of the important precedent in footnotes, so you can use the site as a springboard to further research in a paid platform or in Google Scholar.
  3.  Adhere to the Fifteen Minute Rule. If you research without keeping track of your time, you’re developing poor research habits that will eventually impact your clients when your research time becomes billable. Novice legal researchers often rely on one research technique and keep at it even though they’re hitting dead end after dead end. Remember the Fifteen Minute Rule. Here’s the Rule in action: You enter a Terms & Connectors (Boolean) search string and come up with no results pertinent to your legal issue. You spend some time rethinking your search string. Still nothing relevant. You try again. Nothing. After fifteen minutes of searching, STOP SEARCHING! Try a different finding tool altogether. Go to a secondary source, browse the Table of Contents. Search the Index. Do something drastically different, or you may find yourself down the rabbit hole, where minutes are hours.
  4. Good Notes are Insurance. Sometimes there is no authority on an issue. Sometimes the answer to a legal issue is adverse to your client’s case. In these situations, your supervising attorney may want you to explain your search process, especially if you haven’t established that your credibility yet. Save yourself the embarrassment of having to recall your process on the spot, or pausing to return to your office to print out and decipher your search history in Next or Advance. Take good notes while you research, either in a Word document or on a pad of paper. At a minimum, your notes should include the search terms you used, any finding tools you used (such as key numbers and headnotes), any secondary sources you consulted, any authority you reviewed that you were on the fence about, and all updates on the authority. Date your notes, so you know when you last updated the authority. You should feel confident enough in your notes that you could pass them along to the supervising attorney to review. Good note taking is an excellent credibility builder.
  5. Stop When All Roads Lead Home. Knowing when to stop researching is one of the most vexing issues for novice and expert researchers alike. Generally speaking, you want to stop researching when all roads lead home — that is, when your research keeps turning up the same authority again and again. But here’s the key: you have to confirm this using multiple search techniques. Don’t just review search results to confirm your familiarity with the listed authority. Try other techniques. For example, go back to a secondary source and review the authority cited. Or find a relevant Key Number of Headnote and review the authority cited. Or, if you’re researching case law, enter a key case in Google Scholar and click the “How Cited” tab. How Cited is Google’s version of Shepard’s/KeyCite. While it’s not as reliable at the paid citators, it’s great for confirming you’ve found the major cases on an issue.

Comprehensive Free Legal Research Tutorial

Below is a comprehensive tutorial on a range of free legal research tools, presented by folks at The John Marshall Law School. While some of the tools discussed relate to Illinois law specifically, you can find excellent information about the following resources:

New Legal Research Platform with Crowdsourcing Feature: Casetext

There’s a new free legal research tool in town: Casetext. Currently in the beta stage, Casetext allows users to search a directory of “over one million federal and Delaware cases” using keywords or retrieve a case by citation. Most notable, however, is Casetext’s annotation feature, which allows users to provide comments and analysis.  Here are the type of annotations users can provide:

  • Use expertise in an area of law to add analysis of a document or of a paragraph within a document.
  • Add a link to an article you wrote or another related resource.
  • Help organize documents (by adding tags) or related cases (by categorizing them).
  • Upvote useful related resources.

I like the editable “Quick Facts” feature at the beginning of cases. And I’m particularly interested in the crowdsourced citator function, which allows users to participate in ordering related authorities based on usefulness. However, the pagination of cases is not reader-friendly yet, and until Casetext starts indexing more cases, you can only go so far when clicking internal citations.

Below a list of the cases indexed:

  • all U.S. Supreme Court cases,
  • federal circuit court cases from Volume 1 of F.2d,
  • federal district court cases published in F.Supp. and F.Supp.2d from 1980, and
  • Delaware cases published in A., A.2d, and A.3d from Volume 30 of A.

While the system isn’t lightning fast yet, Casetext has some brains behind the project (former editors of the Stanford Law Review and Harvard Law Review), and I’m interested to see where it goes. Here is an introductory tutorial by the founders:

Quick Facts: Citations to Wikipedia in Federal Cases (2013)

In 2013 so far, federal judges have looked to Wikipedia for assistance in defining terms or establishing facts in thirty-one (31) cases, either in footnotes or in the body of the opinions. Of these, the District of New Mexico has cited to Wikipedia the most, referring to the crowdsourcing website in five (5) separate opinions.

The majority of cases citing to Wikipedia use the source for definitional assistance. For example, the Seventh Circuit recently used the Wikipedia definition of the term “telephone directory.” Navarro v. Neal, 716 F.3d 425 FN1 (7th Cir. 2013). However, courts are increasingly looking to Wikipedia to supply background facts. For example, in one New Mexico case, the court used Wikipedia to establish the date a judge reached senior status. Martinez v. Martinez, 2013 WL 3270448 FN15 (D. New Mexico, June 3, 2013). In a Second Circuit case, the court reached to Wikipedia to establish the plot of “The Birdcage” film. Kelley-Brown v. Winfrey, 717 F.3d 295 (2nd Cir. 2013).

New Tutorial: How to Conduct FREE Legal Research Online

This new video tutorial from the ABA is surprisingly comprehensive and focuses primarily on resources in the Law Library of Congress, the “largest law library in the world.” For international legal research, the LLoC is where it’s at. The law library is also one of the biggest online portals to legal resources available. In addition to surveying the LLoC’s website, this video also offers tutorials on Lexis’ free services, FindLaw, Google Scholar, and government websites such as the GPO’s FedSys. The presentation materials can be located here.

Here’s a summary of the presentation from the ABA:

This free program focuses on the legal research services and resources available from the Law Library of Congress, as well as several other free online collections. Following a general overview of the Law Library and its services available to lawyers, librarians, and researchers around the world, there is an explanation of the organization and content of and THOMAS, the Library of Congress’s federal legislative information sites, which together contain the full texts of House and Senate bills and resolutions, the

Congressional Record, and much more, starting with the 101st Congress (1989-90).

Special emphasis will be given to, which was launched by the Library of Congress in September 2012, and is in an initial beta phase, with plans to transform the Library of Congress’s existing congressional information system into a modern, durable, and user-friendly resource. Eventually, it will incorporate all of the information available on THOMAS.

Learn about the Law Library’s global research services, its vast collections in 195 languages from over 220 jurisdictions worldwide, and its expert staff equipped to answer your legal research questions.

The program also highlights other free, yet trustworthy, online legal collections and search engines, such as the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys), Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute, the University of California, Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project,, FindLaw, Justia, LexisWeb, Google Scholar, and a number of others products.

Lexis Now Permits Unlimited Access to Lexis Advance for Summer Research

This is an update to my post last spring warning students about the potential repercussions of using Westlaw and Lexis passwords for summer employment. It appears that Lexis Advance has joined Bloomberg Law in permitting unlimited access to their research platforms for summer academic and employment purposes.

Since it has become clear that Lexis has its continued existence riding on the success of the Lexis Advance rollout, it makes sense that Lexis would make such an offer this year. So far, word of mouth is that the offer has worked well for Bloomberg.

Here’s the text of the email my students recently received:


Unlimited Access to Your Lexis Advance® ID this Summer

We are happy to announce that your law school Lexis Advance ID will remain active during the summer and that you will have unlimited access to the content available to you in law school to be used for your academic, as well as any summer associate or internship/clerkship purposes*. Whether working in a firm, government agency, any of the courts, or brushing up on your cost effective research skills, you will have unlimited access to Lexis Advance.

We understand that as a law student, your legal education does not stop during the summer. In fact, some of your most valuable and practical legal education occurs during your participation in summer associate and internship or clerkship programs. In recognition of this, for the months of June, July and August of this year, we are expanding the permissible uses of your law school Lexis Advance ID to include use by you in these programs, including all research or other work you perform for the firm, agency, or court. You simply need to be registered for Lexis Advance.

Registering for Summer Access

  • If you’re already a registered Lexis Advance user, you don’t need to do anything else to get Summer Access. Your current ID is all you need.
  • If you aren’t a registered Lexis Advance user yet (or aren’t sure), click here for assistance from your Account Executive.

Support throughout the Summer

Your school’s LexisNexis® Account Executive is available to you during the summer for training and support. Feel free to contact him or her early to let them know your summer research goals.
You also have access to 24/7 customer support for help with Lexis Advance, summer access or research questions at 1-800-45-LEXIS (53947).

Enjoy your “All Access Pass” to Lexis Advance this summer!

Instant Poll: Free Research Tools in Practice


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