For most legal practitioners, the thrill of preparing a case for presentation to court is somewhat mitigated by the seemingly endless hours of research and preparation that need to happen first. Heaven knows we’ve all been there.
Yet, we all know that he with the most data stands the best chance at victory, so how do you sift through piles of information and practice sharp, discriminate research ability to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Quality research that is concise and congruent with the ends of your case management is critical to any lawyer’s life, but it doesn’t stop there. Understanding the content of that research and being able to critically and actively deconstruct that information to create a greater understanding of its integral moving parts will help you place into context the intended message of that data and ultimately aid in the presentation of your case.
Now, you’ve undoubtedly encountered situations where you’ve had to employ every single ounce of your research insight to prepare for trials or arbitration. Still, we think that we can all do better.
Base your research on information from a variety of sources
When lawyers argue for precedence in court, they may as well be saying since it’s happened before, we can reasonably expect a repeat performance. Your research ergo has to reflect a diversity of sources and opinions to establish the precedent or, by extension, the credibility of your data.
Credible research from various sources means that it becomes harder for opposing counsel to cry foul at the intellectual and moral authority of the information you’re presenting.
While many places you can look to for legal research exist, there remains no such thing as a “perfect” legal research source. Different agencies and resources use different algorithms, and each of those complex systems relies on unique designs to articulate the information they source.
Therefore, you must choose more than a singular source of information if you’re to cast as wide a net as possible that will incorporate varying viewpoints, nuances, and professional data or statistics.
Agencies like Westlaw from Thomson Reuters offer prime examples of efficient and intelligent research.
Remain focused on the issue at hand
The “fun” component of research is that the deeper one delves into the topic at hand, the deeper one tends to stray from the subject as the study reveals itself; it also offers tempting opportunities to learn more and delve further into contributory factoids and data.
The endless web that awaits the less than vigilant researcher wastes countless man-hours and ultimately dilutes the intent of the research that you’re conducting.
You don’t have to study and dissect every single treatise, law review article, primer, or annotation related to your question; instead, you have to find the case, statute, or regulation that underpins your issue and will be helpful to your case management.
You’ll find extensive amounts of information from some of the most prominent research providers, and this can aid in your endeavors and save a lot of time.
“A computer search would have given me a list of pertinent cases, but without that, I had to read everything. That is harder by far, but you end up learning a lot more. I was forced to remember cases because making copies of everything was too expensive. Keeping cases in your head is good, too, because cases are like puzzle pieces floating around in your mind, and sometimes, in moments of creativity, they fall into place and form a picture. If they were words on a screen that you could pull up anytime you wished, that phenomenon wouldn’t happen as easily.”
Test your method against the methods of your peers
You’ll find that your research is best placed when you and most effective when it is well planned, consults with new materials and updated sources, and then cross-reference that data with older sources to identify changes, evolutions, or gaps.
You should also consider new and evolving terms that may mean something new or different in a modern context. As we enter a new legal age where self-identifying persons challenge convention, this will become a staple of your research. Thus, you should start getting used to it now.
Once you’ve established a method that works for you, test the quality of the data you have mined using a peer or mentor’s method and compare the results.
Are you pursuing “good law”?
While researching and cross-referencing sources to compile your research data, you should also test your data against a case or statute to see if that case is still grounded in good law and that it hasn’t been overruled or reversed.
You don’t want to arrive at court and rely on a case that has been dealt with an appellate court, only to find that precedent is no longer applicable.
There are various online resources that you can use to check your information for citations and changes and spare you red cheeks later on.
Take regular breaks
This may seem counterintuitive to your pursuits, especially when you’re burning the midnight oil in preparation for your case, but the rabbit hole that you’re courting while simultaneously thinking you’re pursuing a solid line of thought will cost you more than it yields. Stepping away from your research project to get a coffee, some fresh air, or a quick exchange with one of your colleagues could lead you to more fruitful pursuits.
In any scenario, the greater the diversity of ideas that you have access to and can draw from, the greater your research quality will be when measured against opposing counsel. You have to be able to cite as many credible sources that all arrived at the same or reasonably similar outcomes to what you did; otherwise, you’re just sharing an opinion.
Seek help, even you don’t need it
One of the essential parts of the legal process is the defense of thought and the actions of reasonableness. Then, it stands to reason that you have a sidekick of sorts as you enter the case management phase of your legal proceedings—ideally a colleague with wildly divergent views from yours.
An additional legal mind with a unique and diverse set of ideas, life experiences, professional experience, and frame of reference can be a staunch ally in your research project. Having access to an intelligent and thoughtful legal brain that doesn’t agree with you is worth more than gold because if you can handle what they’ll throw at you – you’ll probably be OK in court.
If you happen to find yourself as opposing counsel and your client draws on you to defend a specific position, then a trusted peer or colleague (who you may or may not actually like) is a pivotal weapon in your arsenal. So even if you’re a research god, have someone else review your data, test your facts, and cross-examine your case.
Not all useful research needs to agree with your case
When researching cases and rulings, you could find some research gold there, even if the case you’re referring to doesn’t automatically agree with your point. Hidden in transcripts and jurisprudence are objection rulings, evidence that was permitted or not, witnesses that were struck down or allowed, and the judges meaning as to why.
This is an intensive form of research and will likely require the services of an assistant or adeptly qualified researcher.
Thank God for law students then.
Keep your deadline in mind- but don’t pivot around it
Keeping your deadlines is essential for many reasons, not least of all; being thoroughly and best prepared when your first court date arrives will instantly set the standard and tone for the rest of the proceedings.
But, you mustn’t obsess around your deadlines. The last thing you need now are distractions that only minimize your concentration and comprehension abilities; the way around is to start with a robust plan. A research planner will help you dissect your thoughts and cut through the white noise to get you to where you need to be.
It can’t be overly strict either, as you must allow some flexibility, especially when pursuing complex cases with diverse complainants or defendants or when you want to join a class-action lawsuit. You’ll want to stay focused and structured but still allow that most marvelous occurrence: the gut instinct.
Over time every legal practitioner learns new ways to arrive at desired ends faster and more efficiently; just take care that in your pursuit for time efficiency, you don’t learn the bad habits of research that will only compromise the integrity of the outcome.
You may well want to employ the services of professionals, especially if you’re in a smaller firm and perhaps don’t have the resources to expend on endless hours of fact-checking and data collection. Still, as we alluded to earlier in this post – that’s why God created law students.
Knowing when you’re done is as vital as learning where to start from, and just like the artistic quote goes: a good artist knows when to put down his brush.