Feel Confident that Your Legal Research is Complete by Family Law and Estate Planning attorney, Jeremy Byellin
One of the worst experiences as an attorney is realizing that a vital authority is missing from your legal argument. Your case appears weaker and incomplete as a result, and – worst of all – the omission may directly lead to an adverse result in the matter.
Given the peril associated with incomplete legal research, it’s clearly important to ensure that your research is as comprehensive as possible. But how can you do that?
Although different circumstances may warrant their own appropriate strategy, the vast majority of the time, you can ensure that your legal research is sufficiently thorough by asking yourself four questions during your research endeavors.
Are my authorities up-to-date?
This question is listed first because it is arguably the most important one. After all, the newest cases and laws are the ones you’re most likely to have missed during your research.
How can you tell whether you have found the most current authorities? There are a few different places in Westlaw to check.
First, and perhaps most obviously, you may sort all of your searches to display the most recent cases at the top of your results. This allows you to parse through the newest cases first and work chronologically backwards from there.
Next, the latest cases can be found by navigating to the “Cases” content from the Westlaw homepage and then selecting the jurisdiction or jurisdictions most relevant to your case. The ten most recent cases will be listed first, and you may further search for specific terms within this jurisdiction (also with the option to display the most recent decisions first in the search results).
Third, you may likely be able to discover whether any of your primary sources have received any negative treatment from other such sources by checking on whether the sources has any KeyCite status flags. These flags may sometimes relate to issues that aren’t relevant to your specific case, but more often, you can usually find valuable additional authorities by exploring these flags – specifically those authorities that have impacted the ones you’ve already researched.
Finally, Westlaw Bulletins & Topical Highlights provides an excellent resource for finding the newest cases on a variety of topics – the only downside being that only a limited number of jurisdictions are covered.
Are there any relevant secondary sources?
Most of the time, you shouldn’t cite to secondary sources as being authoritative in your legal arguments. That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t a phenomenal resource for helping to locate and process pertinent primary sources.
And Westlaw certainly has no shortage of quality secondary sources that cover both general knowledge to get you up to speed and also go deep into a specific question. Law reviews and journals can be useful for delving deeper into a specific issue. American Law Reports and Restatements of Law help not only in understanding the basics of a particular subject, but also pointing to important cases on the topic related to your specific jurisdiction. And 50 State Surveys may provide effective insight into where your jurisdiction stands in relation to others on a particular matter. And of course, let’s not forget state practice guides and handbooks too for researching state-specific questions of law.
The full extent of secondary sources available on Westlaw can’t be fully discussed in the limited space here, but they are definitely something to look to in the course of your research endeavors.
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