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Quick Guide: Fast and Accurate Legal Research for Junior Lawyers

Introduction

Carrying out fast and accurate legal research and writing in a pressured law firm environment is an acquired skill. Just like learning an instrument, it requires a combination of focussed practice with an understanding of technique. Speed is often the enemy of accuracy. Consequently, when carrying out legal research under severe time pressure, you will often have to make pragmatic compromises. It is useful to be able to discuss the types of compromises you should be making with your senior partner; usually this is called the “scope of your research”.

However, sometimes these compromises are not acknowledged by senior lawyers. Feel reassured; the shorter the deadline, the more compromises in your legal research you will have to make. Understanding how those compromises may affect accuracy can help you understand in what circumstances it is appropriate to make them.

With excellent understanding of the speed versus accuracy compromises, efficiency techniques and some intensive practice, any lawyer should be able to reduce research and writing time by at least half while still maintaining quality.

Hard Copy

Many people are more comfortable reading the law, especially legislation, in hard copy rather than online. There is no question that reviewing something in hard copy helps with accurate reading. However, printing and using hard copy to do research is a time intensive way of working.

Train yourself to research and read all your sources online. It may take you a few weeks till you are comfortable, but once you are, you will save a huge amount of time. There are a few instances where you should use hard copy, which we mention below. Otherwise, get used to doing everything on your computer.

If you are reviewing a piece of legislation and need to constantly refer to a different provisions or legislative instruments, one of the most efficient ways of working is to open a new tab for each clause/document that you need to regularly refer to. This way you can constantly switch between clauses/documents quickly by clicking between tabs.

Primary Sources

Always read primary sources when researching a topic. You should not rely on summaries of legislation, no matter how respectable the source. The reality of reading legislation under time pressure is that you will have to be pragmatic and selective. To be selective, you will need to skim read the entire table of contents of the legislation. Relevant sections are not always grouped together. Do this online. From this you will be able to choose the operative provisions that you will need to read in close detail.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are useful for finding out other people's or organisation's opinions on a subject. They are also a useful overview on a topic and can help to point toward all relevant legislation and legislative instruments.

You should never rely on secondary sources for summaries of primary sources. If a secondary source makes a statement about the law, you will need to track down the primary source for the statement. Mistakes in secondary sources happen quite often. Do not repeat someone else's mistake by relying on their statements of the law no matter how impeccable the source.

Secondary sources are also useful for sanity checking your own work. If a respected secondary source material differs in conclusion from your own work, then you need to analyse the reason for the difference. This will give you greater confidence when you come to justify your own conclusions.

Start by Writing

The most efficient way to write quickly and accurately is to begin writing straight away. No matter how inane your first words or even if your writing is just a list of sub-topics, it is important to get something down as soon as you start your research. Do all of this on your computer so that reading and making notes is done all in one place. Taking notes in hard copy uses up precious time.

As your research continues, you can refine your ideas and write aide memoires to yourself for further research. The process of writing coherent thoughts (rather than just rushed notes) helps to clarify and direct your thinking and any further research.

The aim is to have a good, rough first draft on your computer by the time you have finished your reading. Getting your thoughts down in a relatively coherent way while you are reading will ensure that your ideas are properly recorded and can be considered in detail when you come to refine your draft.

If you do not start writing straight away and rely on handwritten notes, after you have completed your research, you will be faced with a pile of notes and a blank document. This is not only depressing but the risk that you have not fully recorded your ideas in your notes is high.

Proof Reading

There are two types of proof reading; one for sense and the other for typographical errors. To be accurate and error free, you will need to proof read twice for sense and twice for typographical errors. If you are extremely exhausted, you can read some part of your document out loud or as loudly as you can in a shared office. This can help you instantly spot inconsistencies and errors. Your final proof read for typographical errors should be on hard copy.

Practice when possible

Researching and writing under time pressure is not the time to try and get to grips with your firm's online resources or the workings of your software. Learn about the resources you have available before you need to rely on them. Do you have all the necessary access rights, passwords, etc? Do you need access to anything else? Check that you are comfortable finding and reading legislation, case law and related documents online.

In addition, learn the keyboard short cuts for your 10 most used functions when you write. Doing all this in advance before you are under time pressure will decrease your stress levels and allow you to focus on the task at hand, rather than wasting time on research administration.

Questions

You will inevitably have questions about the detail and scope of your work. Most senior lawyers would rather you asked questions than spend time plugging away at the wrong thing. When you receive your instructions, do not be shy to make sure you understand your brief. Write the brief down and repeat it to your partner. Your aim for a good first draft is to have the law accurately, clearly and concisely summarised, to understand the opinions of leading thinkers on the topic and to have drawn your own tentative conclusions based on your research. If the law is not clear, explain why and give your reasons for your interpretation of the law. Generally, when you have done this, you should go to your partner and ask to discuss your tentative conclusions.

Plain English

Obviously you should write all your advice for your audience and in plain English. Your firm should give you training in plain English drafting, but if not, there is plenty of excellent guidance on the internet.

Next Steps

Research and writing in academia is a different activity to researching and writing in a commercial environment. If you are used to the processes of academic writing, then it will take time and practice to master commercial based writing. Becoming comfortable with the techniques now will establish an efficient way of working that will support you throughout your career.


At Lex Conscientia we provide a range of bespoke training services for lawyers and those who work with the law. If you would like to discuss our services, please contact Sangeet Kaur

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