Helpful Research Hints

Crista Dittert, a second year law student, works as a Research Assistant for the research librarians here at NDLS. Below are a few tips and helpful pointers she picked up through her work this summer.

Conducting efficient legal research is the cornerstone of almost every legal career. Interested in clerking for a judge? Planning to work for a big firm? Pursuing careers in the public sector? Hoping to become a professor? Wherever your legal education leads you, chances are you will be performing research of some kind. This article includes simple suggestions I hope will assist you in becoming more efficient and effective in your legal research at Notre Dame and beyond.

Problem: Your online session times out, and you cannot remember exactly where you were in your research.

Solution: If you are anything like I am, this happens a lot. Whether you took a break to grab lunch or got sidetracked looking up an issue on another database, going back to your Westlaw tab and discovering that you have to start your search from scratch can be very frustrating. Thankfully, there are a few easy ways to pick up your research right where you left off. On Westlaw, click the “Research Trail” option in the top, right-hand corner of your screen. You then have the option of looking at your most current research history or choosing to view every search you have run in the past two weeks. You can even add notes to each trail (for example: “this search was for newest Lanham Act cases” or “already got through first 30 items on list”). Lexis offers a similar option; clicking on the “History” option in the top, right-hand corner of the screen will take you to both your recent and archived search history. Westlaw also displays your most recent searches directly on the home screen. All you have to do is click the tab labeled “Recent Searches and Locates,” and you can view your most recent searches.

Problem: You found the document you were looking for, but you do not want to skim the entire piece to find the section that is relevant to your research.

Solution: Just because you know a certain case or article is relevant to your research does not mean you will find the entire document useful. In fact, as your research becomes more specific, sometimes you will only need to reference one paragraph out of a hundred page document. Westlaw’s “Locate in Result” feature is incredibly helpful in this regard. After entering your search term, this feature locates that term within the document, allowing you to quickly find exactly what portion of the document will be most useful to you. Lexis’s version of this feature is the “FOCUS” option. “FOCUS” allows you to locate a term within a single document or within every document in your search results.

Problem: A footnote in a Westlaw or Lexis article refers to a resource that is unlinked (not available in the database), and you need access to that resource.

Solution: Although Westlaw and Lexis provide access to a wide range of materials, not every document you may need will be available through these databases. If you are researching on Westlaw and cannot find a document you need, the first thing I suggest is to search Lexis (and vice versa). Other possible options for locating articles are to use either HeinOnline or the Hesburgh Library e-Journal Locater. Both of these resources are easily located via the grey box at the top of the Kresge Law Library homepage (HeinOnline via a direct link and the e-Journal locator via the Hesburgh Libraries link). For other print resources, be sure to check both the law library’s and Hesburgh’s online catalogs. Newspaper articles, if not available on Lexis, can usually be found though Hesburgh’s newspaper databases; these databases allow you to view PDF files of archived papers without having to use microfiche. (Need help navigating through the newspaper databases? View Hesburgh’s Newspapers: Research Guide.) If Notre Dame does not have access to the resource you are looking for, you can then use WorldCat. This database searches countless libraries around the country to locate the resource you need. After filling out an interlibrary loan request online or at the Circulation Desk, you will have access to the document you need within a matter of days. The law library has incorporated these resources, and many others, into their Cite Checker Resource Page. This page offers suggestions on how to find the documents you need and includes links to many invaluable research tools.

Some additional research tips:

1. Know your purpose.

Always know the main goal of your research. This probably does not seem like much of a tip when conducting research for yourself (whether it be for your Legal Writing class or for your student note); of course you know what you are looking for and why. However, your end goal may not be as clear when conducting research for your boss or professor. Knowing the purpose of your research is especially important when you are asked to find case law. Will your boss be using these cases to back up a point in a law review article or to distinguish issues in a memo or brief? Do you need to compare the issue among jurisdictions or is one jurisdiction of greater importance? Is he looking for the most recent cases to support his point or does she want the bedrock cases that have become important precedent? The answers to these questions will guide your research, so be prepared to ask such questions when assigned a project.

2. Consider alternate search terms.

There are often different legal terms for the same legal principle. Once you find a case that is relevant to your topic, always check the headnotes for possible alternative phrases that indicate the same principle. For example, if you simply search for the “sight, sound, and meaning” doctrine in trademark law, you will miss all the cases that reference the same topic as “appearance, sound, and meaning.”

3. Ask for help when you need it.

The most valuable resource in conducting your research is the staff of wonderful research librarians at the law school. If you find yourself at a roadblock, need help with a citation, or simply cannot find exactly what you need, do not hesitate to ask for assistance. Their doors are always open, and they are always eager to help.

- Crista Dittert