Agustín Parise (Louisiana State University Law Centre)
Source: Parise, Agustín (2010) “The 13 Steps of Successful Academic Legal Research,” International Journal of Legal Information: Vol. 38: Iss. 1, Article 4.
Available at: http://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/ijli/vol38/iss1/4
The content of this essay is the result of more than ten years of trial and error. It was envisioned as a tool for personal guidance when drafting papers. If the recommendations included in this essay are correctly implemented, they will help law students and researchers write a law paper of publishable quality.
This essay will walk you through a complete research project. The essay follows a four part division: Teamwork, Basics, 13 Steps, and Submission. That division provides clarity, solves problems, and guarantees success in the endeavors. The content focuses on research pursued in U.S. law schools or research units, although it may be applied to other jurisdictions. The organization of the article is as follows:
- Time Management
III. The 13 Steps
- Research Proposal
- First Readings
- Law Library Catalog
- Commercial Electronic Databases & the Internet
- International and Comparative Law Materials
- Working Bibliography
- Working with the Materials
- Structural Outline
- Additional Research
- Writing & Footnoting
- Reviewing & Editing
- Blue-Ribbon Draft
Every endeavor is achieved as the result of teamwork. Even chess players need a team before facing the board. Many of you believe that law may be addressed as Don Quixote charged against his giants: alone and restlessly. But even Don Quixote had Sancho Panza!
Teamwork helps one avoid the solitude of library stacks and the silence that is only interrupted by a pen or a keyboard. It also helps in discovering new perspectives to your own work. Even when you must protect the novelty of a work, you should exchange ideas with others who are in a similar situation.
Teamwork is a win-win situation. Even the most prestigious research units focus part of their activities on workshops and lecture series where researchers are able to share with colleagues the evolutions of their work. If a paper is written as part of a seminar, one should try to present it before one’s classmates. That sharing may trigger new ideas and perspectives, and even change the direction of research in a time-saving moment.
So what composes your team when researching in law? First, your colleagues: those who are in a similar situation. Second, your advisors or mentors: those to whom you look for to receive guidance. Third, the staff from libraries and research units: those who provide you able hands and without whom research would be an almost impossible mission. Fourth, others who have written in the same area, who are willing to share their time with you personally, by phone, by email, or even by mailing you copies of their most recent works. Finally, your friends and family, because many times, from informal talks with laypeople, you are able to identify situations in which your study is losing context or applicability.
Teamwork may be active or passive. Active teamwork takes place when one seeks interaction. Passive teamwork takes place when you are the one who is being sought after for interaction. There is a duty to react positively to this request for teamwork. Even when you may have your own agenda, you should react favorably. Active teamwork would never exist or would tend to disappear if passive teamwork is neglected.
Five basic components provide a framework for successful academic legal research.
From the very beginning, you should look for guidance from those who already explored the area and who went through what you will experience. Guidance may be sought from many people, but must be sought mostly from those who will evaluate the writing. Checking with those who lead will help you stay on track and avoid the loss of resources, mainly time.
It is never negative to seek guidance, although your request may be unwelcomed if made in and untimely or segmented manner. You should schedule appointments and prepare. Basic readings should be done before meeting, and questions should be settled in writing.
Guidance, as the word explains, will provide bearing and direction, but will not solve the research activity or provide a finished paper. Every piece of advice, even when small or seemingly irrelevant, is of value. Be grateful for the exchange of ideas, and always return for additional advice and follow-ups.
Guidance may also be provided by texts such as this essay. However, when drafting a paper that will be graded in law school or submitted before a law review editorial board, you must comply with the specific standards of the reviewer.
2) Time Management
You may have an excellent topic that may result in the unveiling of unique conclusions and contributions to the area of study. Nevertheless, if you fail to submit the work in a timely manner it could become worthless.
Law school papers generally must comply with a deadline. When submitting to a law review, papers that address cutting edge topics must be submitted for publication before they lose novelty.
You must be realistic and be aware of how much time can be allotted to a project. You should divide that time in different segments: research, writing, and editing. It is generally recommended that at least 60% of the time is allotted to research, 30% to writing, and 10% to editing. These percentages may change according to your personal skills. If you are familiar with research tools and the topic, research may be shorter. If you write in a non-native language, you should allot more time to writing, and definitively add more time for editing. These segments may overlap at times, but you should try to make them follow this order. There is no point in writing before doing research (things written may surely be incomplete or not current). Also, it is useless to edit a document that is in a very early stage of writing. Common sense and knowing your weaknesses and strengths are the best tools when budgeting your time.
Time segments within a project, if possible, should be divided into weeks. When dividing time into weeks think about events that might conflict with your research (for example, final examinations, holidays, and so on). It is not the same to do reach during the beginning, the middle, or the end of a semester.
An Argentine politician said that the only thing that can beat time is to be organized. Therefore, in order to win the race against time and deadlines you must be organized. Organization is a twofold element, because you not only have to organize ideas before writing, but also maintain a working space. There should be a working space or habitat where the materials and the result of the research are displayed and safely kept. That space does not need to be large; a simple desk would suffice, as long as you have the ability to keep it organized. Your work space must be welcoming, with good light and air: you will spend many hours there.
You must also organize your computer files. Much of the misused time is due to lack of organizational skills and the inevitable duplication of research that results from misplacing a document or losing a piece of information. There are few feelings that compare with the frustration of losing a document that had been found after many hours of research.
The United Sates is a leader in the expectation for footnotes. The demand for a footnote for every idea expressed in the paper is perhaps the main difference between papers submitted in a U.S. law school or law review and a paper submitted in other jurisdictions. There is a growing need to support the ideas expressed in a paper. With the technological improvements and the almost infinite sources of research, it becomes increasingly necessary to provide a paper with abundant footnotes. Elizabeth Fajans and Mary Falk correctly stated that in footnotes (or endnotes, which are also acceptable) you will indicate one of the following, or a combination of them:
- the authority for the assertion made;
- the attribution for the source, words, or ideas included; and
- the further reading that may be done if one wants to acquire additional knowledge.1
If the three types of footnotes are implemented, a paper will rarely have a single paragraph without a footnote, and most importantly, plagiarism will be avoided. Plagiarism is growing at the same pace as the research tools. That growth has forced the creation of special software that helps instructors and law review editors to filter and identify cases of plagiarism.
Make sure you nail down every sentence and paragraph with its relevant source from the very beginning. It is extremely time consuming to retrace your steps to try to identify a source that has been misplaced or the origin of a paraphrase.
Your credibility is at stake when facing the need for footnotes. It is fundamental to safeguard your credibility. If you lose credibility as a researcher, scholar, writer, all the fruits of your research may be lost too.
You may have a great idea, great guidance, time management, organization, and plenty of footnotes that indicate authority, attribute the borrowing of ideas, and indicate further readings. Nevertheless, if all that is expressed in poor language and hence is of little use to the readers of your work, do not submit the piece for publication, since you will be the only one who may take advantage of it.
You must edit your own work. Always have a dictionary by your side! The effectiveness of self editing may be extended by reading the paper aloud. Nevertheless, there will always be limitations for your eyes. It is very important that you share the paper with an editor. The editor may be a language professor or a colleague. Some law schools and universities provide writing centers or labs that, even when they do not edit papers, provide assistance in the learning of rules of grammar and style. Even a family member may edit for language. Many times, the best eyes to identify typos and incongruence belong to laypeople.
Editing requires time. It may not be done in just one day and after a couple of readings. It should be done by parts and then as a whole. You should edit a print copy of your work, because working with a print document often facilitates editorial work. Even when you decide to edit an electronic text, you should edit on hard copy at least once before submitting. A fresh eye starts to edit when moving from electronic to hard copy and vice versa.
Some editors may identify a mistake only once, and then expect you to correct the same edits through the entire text. You should learn from previous mistakes. Lose fear of being corrected. Editing is part of the learning process, and as mentioned before, together with research and writing, is one of the three segments in which you should divide the project.
Editors are not the only way of editing a paper. When an editor is not available (something extremely rare) you should look for alternatives. Look at similar writings in the area, which many times provide valid and rich examples of word usage and style. Some law libraries keep student papers submitted in the past to use as samples, while law reviews always provide examples of previously published papers.
III. THE 13 STEPS
Some believe 13 is an unlucky number. This essay shows that, at least when writing a paper, that number is close to perfection. The 13 Steps evolve together with a research project, and although the order of some steps may be slightly altered, to achieve positive results most of them should not be changed.
1) Research Proposal
Every research project should start with a research proposal. The proposal is somehow imposed by the course or seminar professors or by the theme of a call for papers. But even when the latter provides basic guidelines, the research proposal is narrowed down by you. The proposal should not extend over 500 words, and should reflect in that limited space the claim or claims of the paper. The proposal should also reflect that you have basic knowledge in that area (by including the use of key words and topic-specific terminology), and that the project is feasible and realistic when evaluating the research tools and time limitations.
A proposal does not make a project static or carved into marble. The ideas expressed in the proposal generally differ slightly from the actual results of the research and writing. These changes do not reflect a mistake. On the contrary, these changes show that the project is evolving and finding its own limits. You may return to the research proposal during the project to check directions. Reasonable changes are inevitable and are part of the learning process.
2) First Readings
Many times you may believe that you have a strong knowledge of your topic. In any event, a quick and groundbreaking visit to the first readings (i.e. legal encyclopedias, study guides, treatises, hornbooks) is necessary. First readings help in avoiding mistakes and misunderstandings that, if not identified until late in the project, will be very time consuming. These readings may also add deeper knowledge and new perspectives.
First readings are therefore excellent starting points. You should aim to broaden your perspectives when facing the first readings. For example, legal encyclopedias and study guides may provide an overview of a topic, but above all, may provide key words and unique or special terminology, leading court decisions, applicable legislation, and names of scholars that write in the area.
These materials provide not only clear explanations, but also protect you from many time-consuming mistakes. Law terminology differs from lay terminology, and a first reading will provide the necessary basic screening. If you were trained in foreign jurisdictions, you may believe that a legal institution in your home jurisdiction is the same as the one you will face in the U.S. That is not always true!
Experience indicates that steps 1 and 2 occasionally go hand-in-hand.
3) Law Library Catalog
There is no better place to start research than a law library, because it provides a concentration of useful resources. In the U.S., law libraries have developed electronic databases that include references to all the items they contain, even to the subscriptions to electronic journals and other databases.
The search in a library catalog, as in any other database, should be done from general to specific. This type of search will avoid the overlooking of seminal readings. After every search in the catalog, you should take note of the different terms entered in the search engine boxes, to avoid duplication and the loss of precious time. If available, you should print the search results. When analyzing material you should make an entry including the call number, the last name of the author, the first words of the title, the year of publication, and the edition.
After searching the catalog, a visit to the stacks is mandatory, even when the Internet allows research of a catalog from the comfort of your working space. Materials are located in stacks in call number order, and a useful item may be surrounded by others of interest. You may find empty slots in the stacks. That means that materials have been checked out by other patrons. Do not give up; a patron who has checked out a given item is easily identified by library staff, and the materials may be recalled, or requested for return for another patron’s use.
The search in a library that is not geographically close to you is also welcomed. Libraries tend to have interlibrary loan (ILL) agreements with other libraries. Therefore, finding material in the electronic catalog of a distant library is often not an obstacle. You should be aware that ILLs may take a couple of weeks to be processed and received.
4) Commercial Electronic Databases & the Internet
In the U.S., cutting edge topics are generally first addressed in law reviews and then may later appear in books. The U.S. has hundreds of law reviews, most being student-run publications, while others are peer-reviewed. In other jurisdictions, law reviews or journals are few, and therefore, most of the research is presented in books. Most U.S. law reviews publish four issues per year, containing four to six papers each. Over the years, thousands of papers are published, and commercial databases have been developed to assist you in your task of moving through this maze of scholarly works.
There are at least three main commercial electronic databases in the United States. Westlaw and LexisNexis provide papers published in the last 25-30 years. Hein Online provides PDF images of papers staring with the first issue of the first volume. With some important limitations, public law schools and research units provide free access to those databases. You are generally provided free or low-cost printing or downloading of contents, making these databases a very tempting place for the gathering of materials. Hein Online includes graphics and footnotes, while the other two providers may omit graphics and send all footnotes to the end of the article. Seminal or leading articles should be printed or at least downloaded from Hein Online as opposed to Westlaw or LexisNexis.
Primary sources are well covered by Westlaw and LexisNexis. These databases are the most current and include court decisions and legislation. Both databases are extremely reliable and are updated almost constantly. The commercial databases also provide references indicating cross-references and validity of court decisions and related legislation.
The three databases provide efficient search engines. Similar to law library catalogs, searches should be performed from the more general to the more specific. The repeated use of search engines will develop mastery of search skills, and with time and practice you will be able to narrow the searches to the specific needs of the project. Commercial databases provide in-school training. You should attend training, which will immediately help you start to gain proficiency with research skills. With efficient searches in these databases you may cover most of the secondary sources, and certainly, all the primary sources regarding a topic.
The Internet is also a source of information, although on occasions the sources are not reliable, or may be available only temporarily. A search on the Internet should be performed only after you have acquired the basic knowledge that will help you separate reliable from unreliable sources. As a search engine, Google is on many occasions a great starting point. Both Google Scholar and Google Books provide access to many materials, but they may also demand many hours of research. As with other search engines it is highly recommended to keep track of the different queries you use. You should stay away from Wikipedia, a well-known online dictionary of sorts, when looking for authoritative sources. This database, although easily accessible and sometimes reliable, is generally created and updated by amateur researchers, making it very prone to mistakes. Using Wikipedia resembles walking on a mine field: you never know what will explode in front of you.
5) International & Comparative Law Materials
Law is a social science that has been affected by globalization. Most papers can be enriched by the inclusion of brief references to the application or status of the research topic in other jurisdictions. Graduate students in law from non-U.S. jurisdictions may add references to their home jurisdictions when analyzing U.S. situations. Many readers will expect these references.
Law school faculty members who act as liaisons for international or comparative law associations generally provide a good starting point for this type of research. Seek their advice! Law libraries are also good places to pursue this type of research because they may have special collections dedicated to foreign, international and comparative law materials, a very valued commodity when facing research projects.
The extent of this research will depend on your interests. Looking into foreign jurisdictions may provide, at least, an example of a solution successfully implemented in other jurisdictions; an example of unsuccessful implementation; or an example of completely different scenarios that make the analogy almost impossible, and therefore, worth mentioning.
The main objective of this research is to expand the perspective and the study of the legal elements under analysis, and hence, to improve those elements already existing or those that will be created in the future. The pursuit for improvement will help in transforming you into a jurist. The latter does not limit the study to the current manifestation of the law only, devoid of scientific and social context; on the contrary, among other qualities, the jurist seeks the origins and reception that the different legal institutions had in different regions and time periods.
6) Working Bibliography
The previous steps will provide considerable amounts of materials as you delve into your research. This makes your creating a working bibliography not only useful, but also necessary. The working bibliography should aim to reflect the advancements of the research. Your document will include a list of materials, divided in at least five groups: legislation, court decisions, books, law reviews, and websites. Entries in the document should be made in alphabetical order, led by the last name of the author. Each entry should be numbered, helping in the identification.
The working bibliography should be kept together with the research proposal. Both documents should be circulated when looking for guidance because they reflect the evolution of the project. Those who provide guidance, by looking at the working bibliography will be able to know if any important work is missing or if the area is not being explored correctly.
The working bibliography, as the name indicates, is a work in progress, and will grow and mutate together with the project. Hence, it is highly recommended to keep different electronic versions of it, which should be saved with different dates, one per each significant change. You will then be able to look at previous versions and identify different stages of your research. The working bibliography will provide a kind of DNA of the completed paper.
7) Working with the Materials
Effective research may or may not result in the gathering of copious amounts of material in a short period of time. Books, law review articles, and website printouts will start to pile on your desk. It is paramount to keep the working space organized and to keep track of all the materials that are being subject to scrutiny.
Computers help with the recording and tracking of materials. In the past, note cards were created for each item, indicating its type, source, and content. Computers now provide a quicker and easier way of keeping records. Word documents can hold entries that should be added to lists, including the last name of the author and the first words of the title.
You may wonder how you will go through so much material while complying with deadlines. When screening law review articles, you should first look at the title of a work, author, journal, and date of publication. These elements may give you an early indication of the usefulness of moving forward with the reading. You should then look at the table of contents, which will provide you with an outline and the main topics that will be addressed. You should then read the introduction and conclusion, because they generally summarize the main claims and conclusions. If you are still interested in the material, start to read the first sentence of each paragraph, which generally presents the idea that will be developed in the rest of the paragraph. This screening process will help you avoid useless reading. The same process should be applied when screening books, with the addition of looking into indexes and tables of cases and statutes cited. Always look into footnotes, which tend to include new sources of knowledge.
There are a number of ways to organize one’s material. Here is one way: while working on hard copy, divide the materials into three stacks: relevant (R), not relevant (N/R), and interesting (I). The first stack will include those materials that you believe to be of value for the completion of the project. Add a letter R in the upper right corner of the first page of a printout or posted to the cover of a book. A second stack will be made with the materials that you believe will not be of value for the project. These materials will be identified N/R and will not be discarded until the paper is submitted (if a resource is then needed it can be quickly retrieved from the N/R stack). A final stack, significantly smaller, will be identified I, and will comprise those materials that you find of interest and believe are not directly connected to this project, but may be examined in more detail once the project is finished.
You will then introduce R, N/R, or I to the electronic list, following the title of each entry. You may get the feeling that you have already read or gone through an item. An electronic list will help you eliminate those uncertainties and gain time by searching with the find function <Ctrl F>.
Stacks and lists should be arranged in alphabetical order following the author’s last name. When making photocopies from a book, make sure to copy the cover page; it is always easier to identify the source. Even when some Internet sites help in reconstructing old sites, web pages should be printed, because you never know when a website will be changed or pulled down. The stack and list of relevant materials (R) may then be divided according to the research proposal and the forthcoming outline.
8) Structural Outline
The research proposal and working bibliography will enable you to move towards the drafting of an outline. This outline will provide structure to the paper and help in organizing the materials.
Most literary works are formed by plots (i.e. exposition, conflict, climax, falling action, resolution). Legal papers have their own “plot,” which should be sketched in the outline. An outline should include, but not be limited to, the following tabs: introduction and state of affairs, postulation of the claim(s), analysis of the claim(s), and conclusion(s).
Additional information may be added to the outline. It is useful to add percentages of the weight that will be given to each tab. This will assist the reader in identifying the relevance that each part will have within the project, inviting corrections. Appendices should also be included in the outline. These will help the reader understand what will be done with supporting or tangential materials. Finally, the tab of references or bibliography should be added.
Approval of this outline by the reader is always useful and, on occasions, mandatory. While writing, it is useful to return to the outline. Conscious decisions should be made regarding the addition, merging, or deletion of tabs within the outline. As with previous steps, it is highly recommended to keep different electronic versions of the structural outline.
9) Additional Research
Research is a knowledge-building process, and there are chances throughout the process to overlook materials. Further readings may indicate that what you previously thought should be located in the N/R stack should actually be moved to the R stack. Therefore, repeat steps three to five as soon as the structural outline is completed.
Most mistakes are solved or avoided as a result of additional research. Among the common mistakes are the following:
- the use of improper court decisions and legislation;
- the omission of references to seminal books and law review articles; and
- the misunderstanding of differences and similarities between different jurisdictions.
Additional research should be performed also on materials coming from other disciplines. Interdisciplinary studies are growing. They provide a rich context for understanding, and they are of great interest for readers. Many law libraries provide access to collections of materials, online catalogs, and article databases from related disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. These include anthropology, economics, sociology, geography, history, and political science. The search for serendipity will enrich the paper and certainly make a positive difference.
10) Writing & Footnoting
It is hard to determine the best moment to start to write. It could be when you start to move in circles around the materials, and searches return the same results over and over again. According to the time management information provided above in the section on Basics, 30% of the time for the research project should be devoted to writing. If there are language barriers the percentage should be increased.
There is a gradual progression that departs from research and moves into writing. There is a grey zone that may extend for some time, but at some point in the project there must be an autonomous time for research and an autonomous time for writing.
When writing, always bear in mind the audience at which you are aiming. This will help give you the proper tone and style. Try to keep sentences short and stick to the golden rule: develop one main idea per paragraph.
Even though this essay avoids footnotes, it has been said that law papers should be fully dressed with them. Accordingly, become familiar with the Bluebook. This book contains the rules of a uniform system of citation. It can be intimidating the first time you skim through its pages. Luckily, once you have a basic understanding of the rules, it can be very user friendly. You should confront the Bluebook early in the writing process and lose any initial intimidation of the resource. Some law reviews and professors follow other citation methods, and the same advice should be applied to those.
The secret when working on footnotes is to be consistent at all times. You may incorrectly apply a comma or a font style when citing law reviews, but if you make the same mistake through the entire paper, it is easier to correct, and you show readers that, even when making mistakes, professionalism was preserved. A good way of dealing with the Bluebook is by looking at other published law review articles. An issue of a law review provides many examples of citation rules applied correctly. Learn from others’ experiences of success!
Footnotes can reproduce very quickly inside a paper. Word processors provide useful tools for cross-references. Learn to work with them from the very beginning. These tools will help to avoid the tedious and extremely time-consuming process of manually updating cross-references within a paper.
11) Reviewing & Editing
Writing is effective as long as the writing is clear and precise. Start to review and edit while the writing is evolving because many times this procedure unveils errors of substance or lack of analysis. Corrections of early typos and usages may also be applied to the rest of the paper.
Do not leave the reviewing and editing for the last day! Many editors take their time to edit and prefer to share their corrections with you, explaining and making sense of the different suggested changes. Try to make appointments regularly with teachers in the writing centers or labs. Try to work on the same project with the same group of people. Do not change them randomly, because they will not be familiar with your work. Always keep copies with comments until the project is over. Identify the date of the comments and who made them.
No paper should be submitted for grading or for publication before editing. Poor editing reflects a complete lack of professionalism.
12) Blue-ribbon Draft
Conscious research, writing, and editing can only derive into a blue-ribbon or high-quality draft. That draft, different from the previous drafts, will be in an almost final stage. Editors should be aware of this final stage. On many occasions editors and other readers will make a more thorough reading of the paper if they know it is in a final stage, because this stage implies more maturity in the writing. Also, be aware that some professors do not read blue-ribbon drafts, and look only at final papers.
Blue-ribbon drafts must include, at least, the following elements: a cover page (with title of paper, name of author, affiliation, and date), a table of contents, the body of the paper, a list of references, and a page of acceptance where the reviewers can add final comments. In addition, blue-ribbon drafts should be available on hard-copy, making them easy to transport and to be shared with readers. Place the paper in a binder, making it easy for the reader to remove pages. These drafts must have been subject to editorial work (i.e. consideration and analysis of all edits and suggestions). In addition, all footnotes should be in Bluebook style and as consistent as time allows.
Once a blue -ribbon draft is ready, you should seek feedback with your team and other forums, such as workshops and lecture series. Blue-ribbon drafts are not to be graded nor submitted for consideration to a law review, and timely changes may be incorporated.
Edits and suggestions are extremely valuable in this stage. They can move a paper from good to excellent and from poor to mediocre. You should lose the fear of exposing your work. Some may welcome the exchange of blue-ribbon drafts. I read yours while you read mine!
Feedback should be analyzed and considered carefully. This may be the last opportunity to get free advice before submitting for publication or before being graded. You will then decide to incorporate or reject the feedback: you have the final call on that. As with previous edits and suggestions, you should keep copies of all feedback and identify the date and provider.
The blue-ribbon draft is not final because it is still pending a conclusive and detailed review that will aim to find inconsistencies in style and form. After feedback is received, a conclusive edit will also aim to identify passages that need clarification.
Once you have gone through the 13 Steps, the paper is ready to be submitted for grading or for publication. Before submitting, you should make sure that the paper is bound (or at least stapled together) and that page numbers are added to each page. Double spacing and single side printing are usually mandatory, to allow marginal notes or comments while grading or reviewing the paper.
Consider publishing the finished results of your projects, even when additional work may be needed to make it more attractive: ideas should always be exchanged and spread! When submitting a paper to a law review, a cover letter and updated curriculum vitae should be included. The letter should highlight the value of the paper and its contribution to the area of study and to the prestige of the law review.
The project will then be over, and the experience will follow you throughout your life. You should now pursue and enjoy the completion of a research project.
The chart below is a quick reference tool to be used during the completion of a research project. Boxes on the left are provided as check boxes. Boxes on the right are provided to include the date an activity is to be started and the date an activity is to be finished.
1 ELIZABETH FAJANS & MARY R. FALK, SCHOLARLY WRITING FOR LAW STUDENTS 99 (3d ed. 2005). Oddly enough, this paper requires its only footnote when it explains about footnotes.