Reading Notes

An overview of legal research

Legal research is necessary to be a good lawyer. In fact, it’s a requirement to be effective at legal research. One of your responsibilities is to provide competent advice to your clients and you will not be able to do so without properly conducting legal research.

Unfortunately, the amount of legal information out there is extensive. So, how do you begin to narrow your scope to the issues presented by the client? Here are six steps for conducting effective legal research:

Step 1: Identify the issues, jurisdiction, and scope of the project.

This step is fairly straightforward but necessary to get right. This is because all your research will be based on getting accurate information in this step. First, you will want to identify the issue your client has presented you with. Second, you will want to make sure that you know if you will be doing research in your current state, another state, or federal laws. Finally, you will want to know how extensive your research might need to be and how extensive your client expects your research to be.

Step 2: Gather facts and identify preliminary search terms.

The purpose of this step is to find relevant facts that will aid in finding comparable legal resources. Using the facts that are provided, you can begin to narrow which terms you need to search for (either electronically or in print). You can gather search terms by using the journalistic approach (who, what, where, why, when, and how). Or, you can use the TARPP (Things, Actions, Remedies, People, Places) approach.

Step 3: Identify, prioritize, and consult relevant resources

This step will help you effectively plan the your research. Here, you take those facts and narrowed terms and put them in order of priority. Using that information, you will want to look for primary resources, whether it’s a statute or common law.

Step 4: Expand and Update your research

Often, you research will take you down other avenues. Sometimes the case you are reviewing is no longer good law. Use citations to determine if you are still looking at good law and other relevant authorities.

Step 5: Ensure your research is responsive to the questions presented

This step seems straightforward. As you expand your research you will want to verify that it is answering the question presented by your client.

Step 6: Know when to stop

The biggest challenge for novice researchers is knowing when to stop. A good rule of thumb is that if you keep returning to the same authorities (same cases or relevant information), you have conducted enough research to be successful.

Other resources

One of the biggest takeaways from this chapter is that you can use electronic resources (through west law or lexis), print resources (through reporters), or in-person resources (such as a legal librarian). This last resource is under utilized seeing how librarians are trained specifically in locating and and conducting legal research.

Additional Notes

Today we are going to be focusing on federal court decisions and how they are reported.

Supreme Court

U.S. Reports are the official reporters

S. Ct. is the West reporter for the Supreme Court.

L. Ed. 2d is the LexisNexis reporter.

United States Report

The U.S. official report is really slow with releasing opinions. They have published only as far as the 2014 term. However, they have released Slip opinions on the SCOTUS website. There are advance sheets which are currently updated to the 2016 term. If there is an official report available, you will cite that first. If there is not, you will want to cite either of the unofficial reporters.

West Report – S. Ct. (Supreme Court)

There are two main advantages to using the West reporter. First, they release almost instantly after the case has been released. Second, they have headnotes which are useful tools for research. If the official report is not available, this is the first place we will go to for citing a case.

Lawyers’ Edition – L. Ed. 2d

We will not often need to use the Lawyers edition from LexisNexis. However, if there are jurisdictions that require parallel citation, we will need to know how to cite it. This week we will practice parallel citation.

Why do some courts require parallel citation? This is because of the overlap of released reports. Parallel citation allows you to look up the case no matter what reporter you are using.

Nominative Reporters

Some of the older cases were reported by people, not just by numbers. So, there will also be the name of an individual along with the number. So, when we cite, we need to cite both the U.S. reporter and the name of the person who originally reported it.

Court of Appeal

F.4 is the official reporter. We are currently in the fourth series. I need to correct ALWD pages 75 &418 to reflect this information.


We are in the 8th circuit in Iowa, so we need to cite to the 8th circuit. That is the governing law for this geographical area. After citing the reporter, we need to indicate the circuit in parentheses (i.e. Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969 (8th Cir. 2000).) ALWD appendix 4 is a good tool for circuit court abbreviations.

District Court – F. Supp. (Federal Supplement)

F. Supp. 3d is the Official reporter. Currently in the third series.

The important thing to note in the citation here is that it has both the district and the state within the parenthesis. (i.e. MiKinney v. United States, 255. F. Supp. 714 (W.D. Wash. 1965).)

Another example. Losee v. Maschner, 113 F. Supp. 2d 1343 (S.D. Iowa 2000).


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

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Will Laursen

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