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Summer Legal Research Tips

Researching: When to Stop!

red stop signKnowing when to stop researching can be the very hardest part of any research assignment! It is important to check-in throughout your research and access whether it is time to conclude.

Remember, sometimes in law the answer is that there is no answer! There are areas of law which will have no relevant authority. Below are questions you can ask yourself to determine what--if anything--there might be left to do before wrapping up a research project. These questions can help you confidently distinguish between "there is no answer" and "I can't find one."


  • Have you followed all the leads from secondary sources?
  • Have you found all the mandatory, primary authorities?
  • Have you fully updated and validated the sources you used?
  • Did you move through all the steps laid out in your research plan?

If you feel confident you have done a thorough job then it may be time to stop. Double-check your thoroughness by comparing what you have done to your research plan.


  • Do all your resources lead back to each other?
  • Do all your searches retrieve the same cases, statutes, regulations?

When you are finding good sources that are on point and answering your question, but stop producing new results no matter what tool you use or how you tweak your search--it is time to stop.


  • Do you have a good understanding of the authorities on both sides of the issue(s)?
  • Can you answer the legal question you sought to answer?
  • Can you create the deliverable expected of you?

There may be a seemingly unending number of sources on your topic. If you have your mandatory authorities and can answer the question you have been asked in the format required, it is all right to stop.


  • Have you gone over or are you nearing the project money limitations?
  • Are you spending more time or money than the project is worth?
  • Are you pushing against a deadline?
  • Have you left yourself time to organize your research into something useable?

What if you are out of time/money and you are still not finished? Communicate with the assigning partner or client for whom you are doing the work. Tell them / ask them: (1) This is what I have done, (2) This is what needs to be done, and (3) Whether I should continue my research.

Creating Legal Research Deliverables

When undertaking a legal research assignment, it is a best practice to think about what the result of the project should look like when you are finished. The output--or deliverable--will vary based on a number of factors.

You may have been asked to prepare a memo, draft a brief, or prepare a letter to a client. Each of these documents have their own structure and requirements. For example, a memo is an objective piece of legal writing which should demonstrate the full picture of the legal authority on both sides on an issue. In objective writing, you would almost exclusively cite to primary authority. An appellate brief (like the one you will write in the spring), however, is a persuasive deliverable addressed to the court. While primary authority will remain the most dominate part of your research support, legislative history, legal and non-legal secondary sources, and statistics and other data might find their way into your final product. Thinking in advance about the format will help you efficiently craft a legal research plan and assess the completeness of your final research.


There are a few best practices that can help ensure your final product will be polished and useful.

  • Answer the questions asked in the manner expected. This may seem like a 'no-brainer,' but it is important to ask yourself whether the task assigned has been achieved. This also means not answering more than you have been asked to answer. It can be perceived as a time-waster or inefficient to take on too much. If you identify additional areas which might need to be researched, bring them up and ask whether this work should be pursued.
  • Pay attention to details!!! It is not enough to simply run spell check. Read through your final product carefully. Pay attention to citation. Make sure the citation format is appropriate for the jurisdiction or context.
  • Even when the deliverable is an e-mail, remove the "I" and "we" language from your research assessment and explanation. This allows your work to be forwarded to another attorney or client. Your assigning attorney will appreciate the eliminated steps of having to re-frame your work.
  • Make sure you not only take good notes along the way but save them! After completing your deliverable you may be asked "How did you find that?" or "Did you look at xzy?" You want to be able to go back and articulate your path and the details behind the report you made.

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