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Legal Research Skills

I recently read an interesting article by Sarah Valentine entitled, “Legal Research as a Fundamental Skill: A Lifeboat for Students and Law Schools.” It reminded me of several things I believe most of us know, but fail to implement when conducting research.

Go Beyond Case Law –
Why do we immediately start our research in case law? Many secondary sources including treatises and journal articles provide a wider discussion of an issue. These resources often explore nuances that a decision can not. Plus, key cases are often identified and analyzed.

Go Online with Open Eyes –
Throwing search terms in a general search engine such as Google may or may not completely cover a topic. When using the Internet, take advantage of focused websites (e.g. Cornell’s
LLI, SSRN, or the State Bar of Wisconsin). To help eliminate irrelevant documents use the “advanced search” option (e.g. limit domain to .gov or limit results to .pdf documents).

If you find yourself with too many hits, maybe start in Google Scholar or Google Books. Or check a website that can provide some direction such as Zimmerman’s Research Guide or ipl2 (which is a merger of the Internet Public Library and Librarian’s Internet Index).

Remember the saying that “not everything is online.” It is true. There are valuable resources (e.g. older drafting records) that have not made it to the Internet.

Go to your Subscription Databases –
Take advantage of the resources you are paying for. Contact the research assistance line to learn about and get the most out of these products. A few minutes in a paid subscription resource may save an hour of general online searching.

Go to the Library –
I am not only referring to the books at your firm or office. Seek out the experts at the various libraries available such as the State Law Library, Milwaukee County Legal Resource Center, Marquette, UW Law Library, Legislative Reference Bureau’s library, etc. Their staff and collections will prove invaluable. And remember, no matter where you live in Wisconsin a State Law Library card (available to WI licensed attorneys) provides you with access to databases and items in their collection.

The public and UW libraries have databases and resources that can assist with non-legal research. Many of these libraries now offer online chat with the reference librarians. And, do not forget Badgerlink.

Do you have any thoughts?

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