Tools of the Trade

The Steps Involved From Meeting with the Client to Researching the Issues
guest author: Joe Custer, JD, MBA, MLS

Step 1: Find the Facts: Your first job is to make sure you and your attorney have all the facts. In a real situation, you would ask the client specific questions, take a look at the document(s) in question, and meet with potential witnesses to start. Keep in mind that being able to prove liability is not, by itself, a reason to accept a case. If you and your attorney cannot collect any real damages, accepting the case makes no economic sense for either the client or for you. In the real world, finding the facts and deciding whether to take a case are often two very distinct questions.

Step 2: Spot the Issues: You want to help your attorney determine what potential claims (and possible defenses) are available to the client (and to the other side). You can break the claims into categories such as criminal charges and civil causes of action.

Step 3: Choose a Starting Point: "Create a Document" method for note taking. Make certain your attorney (or you depending on your role) writes down all possible claims. You may consider starting a separate file (either a hard copy or on your computer) for each claim. You may want to attack each claim separately so that you do not become overwhelmed with sources and strategies. You will want to keep notes on each claim as you progress throughout your research.

Take notes to keep a record of where you have researched. As you or your attorney gather information, you will find sources that are both useful and not useful. Keep track of both. Invariably, your attorney will need to go back and find more law. If you have kept notes on the sources that were not helpful, you will help your attorney by not wasting his or her time repeating research. In addition, if your notes indicate which sources were most helpful, you can focus your and your attorney's energy on those sources when you continue researching.

Step 4: Think First: Before running off to the library, or for heaven's sake, logging onto one of the expensive legal databases, begin by thinking about your issue(s). This might take you and/or your attorney five minutes or an hour or overnight, but it will save you time in the long run. First, go back to Step 2 and write an issue statement so that you remain focused throughout your research. (Your issue statement need not be perfect.)

Step 5: Create Effective Search Terms: Next, brainstorm ideas for search terms. Use the issue statement as a starting point. As stated in Step 3, keep notes so that you don't repeat a failed search. Ask your attorney questions. Use the TARPP (Things, Actions, Remedies, People, Places) method or what you learned in grade school, the Who, What, Where, When, Why method. Some add How and How Much to the 5 W's. These two related methods can help you brainstorm to come up with other terms that might help you expand or narrow your search.

Step 6: Identify Appropriate Legal Sources: Mattering on your experience, you can be a great help in helping your attorney find useful secondary sources; primary authorities; constitutional provisions, statutes, rules/regulations and cases and making certain that all the resources have been updated.

Step 7: Use Helpful Finding Tools: As you proceed don't forget about those time-tested finding tools that you may not have even considered yet. Remember the Table of Contents! For example, each state statutory code will have a table of contents. You can use either the table of contents in the print books or the table of contents provided by an online database resource to search categorically. Online, these expand as you get deeper into a subject area.

Do you go to the archaic Digest systems? Yes, indeed! Go see what the Key Number System and Headnotes say for your issue(s). Here the work has already been done for you. These systems are also available online. Most think of West when thinking Digests (searching through WestlawNext), but LexisNexis and Bloomberg Law also have their own digest systems.

Step 8: Use Sources to Find Other Sources: Those annotations in the West Digest system, by the way, are the same annotations that you will find at the end of statutes in the annotated West statutory sets. Many of the legal research tools are already inter-connected! The annotations will lead you to cases and secondary sources regarding your issue. Cases you read will further cite to other cases (or statutes or secondary sources) that are relevant to your issue(s) as well. When you update these cases, you will also find citations to cases that have referenced that case.

Step 9: Know When to Stop: The worst feeling when you and your attorney walk into court is wondering whether you found all the relevant law for your arguments. Therefore, you want to be thorough in your research. A good time to stop your research is when you keep finding the same law. Keep in mind, however, that research is not a linear process. Just because you have followed one research strategy from start to finish does not mean you are done with your research. Oftentimes, you or your attorney will find holes in your argument as your attorney is writing a document. At that point, do more research so you can be thorough when citing to authority. Remember to update your sources!


Joe Custer is an Associate Professor of Law at the Case Western Reserve University School of law, where he is also the Director of the Ben C. Green Law Library. Professor Custer has written several articles and books. He also teaches Advanced Legal Research and Electronic Discovery.

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