Legal Research Challenges and Mistakes Paralegals Can Avoid

Legal Research Challenges and Mistakes Paralegals Can Avoid

Paralegals are the backbone of any legal team, ensuring smooth operations and meticulous case preparation. However, even the most organized paralegal can stumble in the crucial area of legal research, which is essential for any successful legal case.

Did you know?

What is Legal Research?

Legal research is the process of identifying and retrieving information necessary to support legal decision-making. It involves finding the laws and legal principles that apply to a specific situation. Legal research is used for various purposes, including:

  • Support legal arguments: Lawyers use research to find legal authority, such as statutes or court cases, to support their arguments.
  • Draft legal documents: Legal research is necessary to ensure that legal documents, such as contracts and wills, are accurate and comply with the law.
  • Providing legal advice: Lawyers also use research to provide accurate and up-to-date legal advice to their clients.
  • Understanding the law: Legal research is essential for anyone who wants to know how the law applies to a particular situation.
  • To stay up-to-date on the law: The law is constantly changing, so legal professionals must conduct research to stay current on the latest developments.

Legal Research Challenges

Legal research can be complex and challenging due to the vast amount of legal information available and the constantly evolving nature of the law. Legal research comes with its own set of challenges, and here are some of the biggest ones faced by paralegals and legal professionals:

  • Information overload: The sheer volume of legal information available can be overwhelming. Legal databases, case law, statutes, regulations, and scholarly articles create a vast landscape.
  • Keeping up with changes: The law constantly evolves through new legislation, court decisions, and agency rulings. Staying current with these changes requires ongoing efforts and awareness.
  • Identifying relevant sources: Knowing which sources are credible and directly applicable to a specific legal issue can be challenging. Filtering through vast amounts of information to find the most valuable pieces takes skill and experience.
  • Understanding complex legal language: Legal documents and case law are often written in a technical and specialized language. Comprehending the legal terminology and nuances requires a strong legal foundation.
  • Accessibility of resources: Subscription-based legal databases can be expensive, and access to these resources can be limited depending on the firm’s budget or location.
  • Time constraints: Thorough research can be time-consuming, especially for complex cases. Balancing the need for comprehensive research with deadlines and caseloads requires practical time management skills.
  • Jurisdictional variations: Laws can differ significantly between states, countries, and local jurisdictions. Researching the applicable law for a specific case adds another layer of complexity.
  • Verifying information: With the abundance of online information, verifying the source and credibility of what you find is crucial. Not everything online is accurate or reliable.

Legal research requires a combination of legal knowledge, critical thinking skills, information literacy, and efficient research techniques. By being aware of these challenges and honing their research skills, paralegals can overcome them and provide valuable legal support.

Legal Research Mistakes

Here are some of the top legal research mistakes paralegals make:

  • Relying solely on free or easily accessible sources: While some free resources can be helpful, research often requires access to comprehensive legal databases. These databases contain the latest case law, statutes, regulations, and other legal materials that may not be free.
  • Not using the right keywords or search terms: Legal research requires using precise legal terminology to find relevant information. Paralegals unfamiliar with legal jargon may struggle to find the most appropriate sources for their research.
  • Failing to analyze the information found properly: It’s not enough to simply find relevant legal information. Paralegals need to be able to analyze the information, understand how it applies to the specific case, and identify any potential counter-arguments.
  • Not considering the jurisdiction: Laws can vary significantly between different jurisdictions (states, countries, etc.). Paralegals need to ensure they are researching the law that applies to the specific case they are working on.
  • Not keeping track of research sources: It’s important to record all the sources used during research. This is essential for citing the sources properly and ensuring the accuracy of the research.
  • Not verifying the information found: Just because information appears on a legal website or database doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Paralegals should verify the information they find by checking it against other reputable sources.
  • Plagiarism: Copying and pasting legal information without proper citation is plagiarism, which can have serious consequences.
  • Not understanding the attorney’s needs: Legal research aims to provide attorneys with the information they need to represent their clients effectively. Paralegals must understand the attorney’s specific needs and tailor their research accordingly.

By avoiding these mistakes, paralegals can conduct effective legal research that provides valuable support to the legal team.

Techniques and Resources for Effective Legal Research

A recent study by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) found that 42% of paralegals felt they could improve their research skills.

Conducting thorough legal research is a crucial skill for paralegals and legal professionals. Here are some key techniques and resources to navigate the legal landscape:

Legal Research Techniques:

  • Define the Legal Issue: Clearly identify the central legal question. This will help you focus your research and identify relevant sources.
  • Start Broad, Then Narrow: To understand the legal area, begin with broad searches using secondary sources like legal encyclopedias or treatises. Then, gradually narrow your focus using primary sources and legal databases.
  • Utilize Boolean Operators: Mastering search operators like “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT” in legal databases significantly refines your results and retrieves the most relevant information.
  • Shepardize Your Sources: Shepardizing is verifying the validity and current status of a legal citation (case law) using tools like Shepard’s Citations. It ensures you’re relying on up-to-date and binding legal precedents.
  • Take Detailed Notes: Maintain meticulous research notes to track sources, key points, and legal arguments. This will be crucial for building your case and for future reference.
  • Analyze and Synthesize: Don’t just collect information; analyze and synthesize the findings from various sources to identify relevant legal principles and arguments.

Legal Research Resources:

Primary sources: These are the official sources of law, such as:

  • Constitutions: Federal and state constitutions establish the supreme law of the land.
  • Statutes: Laws enacted by federal, state, and local legislative bodies.
  • Regulations: Rules and regulations created by administrative agencies to implement statutes.
  • Case Law: Judicial opinions issued by courts, establishing legal precedent.

Secondary Sources: These provide analysis and explanation of primary sources, including:

  • Legal Encyclopedias: Offer comprehensive summaries of legal topics.
  • Treatises: In-depth examinations of specific legal areas by legal scholars.
  • Law Review Articles: Scholarly articles published in legal journals that analyze current legal issues.

Legal Databases: Powerful online resources for legal research, such as:

  • Westlaw and LexisNexis: Comprehensive legal databases with vast collections of primary and secondary sources, legal news, and practice tools.
  • HeinOnline: Offers access to legal journals, historical legal materials, and government documents.

Free Online Resources: These can be a good starting point, but verify credibility:

  • Government Websites: Many government websites offer access to statutes, regulations, and legal resources.
  • Legal Blogs and Articles: These may not be as authoritative as primary or secondary sources, but they can provide helpful insights.

Additional Tips:

  • Seek Guidance: For complex matters, don’t hesitate to ask librarians specializing in research for help or consult with experienced attorneys.
  • Stay Current: Legal research skills require ongoing development. Attend workshops, subscribe to legal publications, and stay updated on legal developments.
  • Outsource Legal Research: Feeling overwhelmed by research? Outsourcing legal research allows you to free up time for other important responsibilities. You’ll get faster responses, access to more resources, and cost savings while focusing on client strategy and case development.

Combining these techniques and resources allows you to conduct effective research that provides a strong foundation for legal arguments and case strategies. Remember, legal research is a continuous process, so refine your skills and stay informed to navigate the ever-evolving legal landscape.