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Resources for Law School Clinics

How Do You Start?

Read the Case File

This sounds obvious, but before you start any research, make sure that you review the client's file. Analyze the facts in the client's file and try to frame the legal issues (who the client is, what jurisdiction you're in, what law applies, etc). Next, you need to figure out what you already know and what you need to learn. Take note of any primary law that you have been given. Finally, using this information, generate some search terms.

Use Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are incredibly helpful because they can give you a basic understanding of an area of law. Secondary sources can direct you to terms of art and relevant primary sources, which can help you narrow your research, or compare how different jurisdictions have analyzed a legal topic.

Research Tips

  • The Table of Contents is Your Friend! When you are using a secondary source, don't forget to look at the table of contents. The table of contents will show your legal concept within its legal context, which will allow you to find related topics.
  • Shake Up Your Searches: If you aren't getting anywhere with a natural word search, don't be afraid to use Boolean connectors. Most databases will have an explanation of Boolean connectors when you use the "Advanced Search" option. For more information, see the Advanced Searching for Bloomberg Law, Lexis, and Westlaw guide.

Evaluating Secondary Sources

There are different types of secondary sources, and the best secondary source to start with will depend on your familiarity with the legal concept and what you are ultimately looking for (e.g. scholarly v. more practical legal information). Here is a list of the different legal resources:

  • Legal dictionaries: provide the legal definitions of words, as well as their use. Black's Law Dictionary is the leading legal dictionary for U.S. law. 
  • Legal encyclopedias: provide an overview of federal and state law. Typically, legal encyclopedias are less detailed than a treatise or an American Law Reports annotation and offer few references to primary law, so they are a good place to start researching when you are unfamiliar with the area of law in order to find keywords and terms of art. Examples include
    • General: American Jurisprudence (Am. Jur.) and Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.)
    • Subject specific: The BNA U.S. Income Portfolios is a tax legal encyclopedia
  • American Law Reports (ALR): ALRs are much more detailed than a legal encyclopedia and tend to provide references to relevant case law, as well as statutes and other legal primary sources. ALRs also compare jurisdictions. This is one place where you can look for the "one good case."
  • Law Reviews and other Legal Periodicals: legal periodicals tend to be more scholarly and look at what the law is currently and what the law should be. However, they are another place where you can find "one good case," and this kind of resource is also where you can find more in-depth analysis of esoteric or emerging areas of the law.
  • Treatise: very detailed and organized coverage of an area of law. This is another place to find "one good case."  Nimmer on Copyright is a treatise about copyright.
  • Restatements of Law: You probably heard about the Restatements in your doctrinal classes. The Restatements of Law "organize the common law of the United States in a distinctive format that includes the text of legal provisions, official commentary, illustrations, and notes." (Law Library of Congress, Secondary Legal Sources). The Restatements are prepared by the American Law Institute, which is an organization of judges, professors, and lawyers.

To Google or Not to Google?

Google, and other search engines, can be a great tool for finding relevant legal information, especially about emerging legal topics. However, always remember to think critically about information you find via Google and that a Google search should never the end of your research.

What Next?

The goal of reviewing secondary sources is to: (a) understand the background of the law, and (b) find appropriate primary law (current case law, statutes, regulations, etc). You might find that you are seeing the same cases and statutes cited in different secondary sources, and that is a good thing. Once you're at that point, you can start using your case research tools, statutory research tools, or other research tools. 

Research Tip - Research is Not Linear: Legal research is not a linear process. It's very possible that once you start delving into the primary sources, you will have to go back to the secondary sources. Make sure you keep track of your search terms, and if you need assistance, don't hesitate to contact a reference librarian!

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