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Summer Legal Research Tips

So, How Do I Make a Plan?

If there is no right way then how does one make a legal research plan? Well, start with a self-assessment. You probably have a sense of what comes more naturally to you, as well as where your strengths and weakness lie. Remember the best method is the one that helps you to stay on task, tracks where you have been, and guides you to the information you need. A basic research plan will break down your questions into specific research tasks, identify sources to use in your research, and begin to identify search terms.

man drawing sports game planBelow are some examples of ways to approach legal research planning. Read through them and see if you can identify a format that might work best for you. Not sure? Try out different approaches. Still not sure? Make your own!

Too Many Cases? Too Few?

Sometimes while following your research plan you find you are retrieving too many results--or too few. It is important to remember the plan itself should be part of the evolving process of legal research. You may need to revisit--possibly more than once--your plan in order to get the best results. Below are a few tips to help you address how to gather a manageable and comprehensive number of resources.

  • Go back to your issues statement and see if can be refined. You may actually be dealing with more than one issue or an issue that has more than one part. Remember, sometimes a single research problem will require you to research and answer multiple legal issues.
  • Go to a digest topic outline. You may be very close to the topic you need, but not realize there is a more targeted or nuanced aspect. A topic outline can help you browse the potential avenues you may need to consider. You may not know exactly what you are looking for, but you probably have enough knowledge at this point to recognize it when you see it!
  • Eliminate or add search terms to broaden retrieval results.

Confused? Stuck? No Answer?

What if you have looked at secondary resources, made a plan, and found plenty of resources, but find yourself very confused about your research? (Perhaps even more so than when you started!) You may feel like you have done everything you were supposed to do and are not any closer to being ready to deliver a result.


If you get confused or stuck along the way there are several steps that can help you get on--or back on--track.

  • Go back to your statement of the issue: Does it need to be framed differently? Are you sure you are asking the right question? Perhaps it needs to be broken down into smaller components.
  • Go back to secondary sources: Try looking at different types of resources (e.g. if you consulted law reviews before, try an ALR annotation). Look at secondary sources that are more narrow in scope now that you have better identified the subparts of your problem.
  • Go back to your search terms: try to rerun search terms with more broad or narrow queries.
  • Go to a law librarian: It never hurts to ask an expert for assistance.
  • Go back to the person who gave you the assignment and ask for clarification: Be prepared to explain what you have done already and have specific questions in mind when seeking clarification.


It happens. There are still areas of law with no on-point authorities to follow. Just like when you are stuck or confused, there are a few steps you can follow next.

  • Be sure you have covered all the bases and tried all the different research angles. This is where having a plan to refer back to really helps!
  • Check with a law librarian--again expert advice is always helpful.
  • Go back to the person who gave you the assignment and explain what you have done and what you have and have not found. See how he or she wants you to proceed.
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