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A simple system for legal research by Mind Map: A simple system for legal
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A simple system for legal research

Here is a simple system for approaching legal research. It's based on the idea that legal research is an organic, cumulative process, and that you only need one good document to get started. More than one is good, but one is enough. So... Start with whatever you've got, your starter document. Read it and understand it. Go back. Your starter document probably has references to other useful things. Read and evaluate as you go - and keep notes on what you have found. Go forward. Look for other documents that cite your starter document. So, cases which cite your case; or cases which cite your statute; or articles which discuss your case or statute; or textbooks on that general topic. Read and evaluate as you go. Go sideways: find more of the same. You might want to look for other documents like your starter document. So, other cases on that area of law; other articles on that topic. Find your starter document in an index database, then look at the subject headings and keywords they used to describe it, and search again for those subjects/keywords. Read and evaluate as you go. If you find something really good, it pretty much starts the whole process over again, with a second-generation starter document. Sooner or later you will get that deja vu feeling. If you have tried a variety of searches, and your searches aren't finding anything new, stop looking and start the hard work of analysis. Note that for each of these steps we are using pretty much the same tools (case law indexes, journal indexes, full-text sources, the library catalogue) just using them in different ways. So once you have mastered the basic tools, you can do lots of things with them. One last thing. Did you notice the bit that said you should read, evaluate and take notes as you go? Doesn't matter which system you use (though EndNote is good for extended research), just do it.  

go sideways: find more like your starter document

If your starter document is good, look it up in an index. See how they have described it - what terms and subject headings they have used-  and search again for those terms. It's reverse-engineering.

case law indexes

journal indexes

library catalogue

go forward: find subsequent documents that cite your starter document

case law indexes

journal indexes

Google Scholar

go back: find & read the sources mentioned in your starter document

You should have good references, so locating the full text should be relatively simple. If your starter document is a statute, you might want to look at the bills and parliamentary debate (Hansard) that preceded it. The Law Subject Guide has tips for finding primary material (by jurisdiction), articles and texts. And if that doesn't help, just ask.





start with what you've got

Chances are that when you start your research, you already know of at least one significant case or statute or text or article. If you are starting with absolutely nothing, find something general like a legal encyclopedia or a textbook. Let's call that first document your starter document.