Basics of research for law students
Legal research is an essential part of studying law. Through research, students can expand the horizon of their legal knowledge. While research in itself may be a fun activity to many, it can also be frustrating. It is common for many law students to sit before a computer desk or law library for hours, desperately trying to figure out one elusive legal authority needed to support a crucial point of their legal argument.
Legal research methodologies include scientific and systematic ways to solve any legal question. These are techniques one may utilise to acquire information, analysis, interpretations and findings pertaining to the question of law. As a law student who is passionate about legal writing, I follow a 3-step guide for my research and I intend to share it in this article.
Step One: Formulating a research plan
Formulating a research plan includes a ton of brainstorming to extract the precise question the researcher needs to answer at the end of the paper. It is also the phase where a researcher should generate search terms and keywords for the paper. The core question of the paper may be broken down into several sub-parts to expand the research plan. A researcher should be mindful of the complexity of the topic, his/her comfort and availability, and knowledge of the subject while formulating a research plan.
Step Two: Organising primary and secondary sources
After formulating a research plan, a researcher should begin organising primary and secondary sources for the project. Here, a lot of students make the mistake to mesh this step with the first one by looking for legal authorities in the first step without carefully analysing the primary questions about the topic. Hence, one should only opt for organising sources once he/she has – (1) chosen a precise question to address; (2) excluded the questions that are irrelevant to the project; and (3) identified the keywords to find sources required to consult for the research.
In terms of consulting primary and secondary sources, I find it easier to opt for secondary sources first which ultimately helps to find the most relevant primary sources. Legal encyclopedias, law reviews, journal articles, commentaries, etc. as secondary sources are pertinent to obtain background information to place the issue in its proper context. It also serves as persuasive authority in many cases and helps to refine the legal terminologies for the author. Often, secondary sources even help re-focus on the issue and get the topic back on track.
Another important reason for using secondary sources, in my opinion, is that they lead directly to the primary sources. While working with the secondary sources, a researcher may wish to refine the initial outline prepared in step one based on the findings. In addition, it is the foremost concern of a researcher to place the persuasive authorities successively to establish a legal argument. Hence, a researcher should be mindful of placing the authorities in the following hierarchy; (1) statutory materials (e.g., national legislature, etc.), (2) regulatory materials (e.g., administrative regulations, etc.), and (3) case laws (e.g., cases across jurisdictions). A researcher should further use citations to expand and update the authorities provided in the paper.
Step Three: Analysing the research results
The last step of any research work involves careful scrutinisation of the research outcomes. Particularly in legal research, it is important because it leads to the judicious analysis of the findings, as well as the organisation of the results integrating them into a final outline. This phase also includes a review and revision of the primary authorities cited previously in order to avoid misinterpretation of the materials. A researcher is further required to prioritise and harmonise the authorities cited in the previous steps to reach the most reasonable conclusion for the research question. A research project takes several drafts to reach the ultimate product as the researcher may wish to reorganise the product in different stages of drafting.
To conclude, following the aforementioned steps diligently does not guarantee an accurate research work, but it might make the work easier for one to prepare the ultimate outcome.
The writer is a Student of Law, BRAC University.