6 easy ways to become a better legal researcher

Where is a particular law report found? Should I use a free database for amended legislation? Is there a precedent document? Where can I find a full version of an article? There is no secret to what legal information professionals do. We are happy to share our knowledge in what some might describe as ‘excruciating detail’. To spare you, I’ve kept it brief. If you follow the hints and tips below you can improve your skills in no time.

Practice your research skills

Practical skills like driving a car, baking a cake, or speaking a foreign language only become familiar and comfortable through necessity, regular use and practice. Unfortunately it requires time which can be in short supply. An article about legal research is never going to turn you into a proficient researcher. Neither is sitting in a training session. But follow these tips and get practicing your legal research, and you will benefit in your day to day role.

Know your business and legal research sources

It sounds obvious but get to know what subscription services are available. You might think you have a complicated question, but a single search on a database could provide you with an answer. Have this knowledge at your fingertips, and overcome your biggest obstacle to efficient use of time.

Until you have spent time working with the various free and paid for databases (free and fee), you won’t find out which one you prefer. Each one has idiosyncrasies. Treat the larger databases like a Law Society or a university library. You wouldn’t expect to pick a book off the shelf and get a definitive answer immediately.

Join mailings for hints and tips

Your library and information portal on the intranet should contain useful hints, as should publisher emails. Just as your phone or computer software is being updated constantly, so are your research resources. New material is being added to – or deleted from – your library and information services all the time. You may not want to subscribe to more email alerts, but it could save you time to know if something has changed.

Brush up on your boolean logic

Watching someone create a boolean or proximity search with a succession of brackets, * or ! can appear daunting. But once you have seen a list of precise results which are all relevant you won’t want to go back to ‘google-style’ searching. Do what ever it takes to learn them; go to the resource, print out the connectors, use them, memorise them.

Be methodical

Completeness is one of the main issues that information professionals face. We are asked how can we be sure that we have found everything on a particular subject. Recent research using keywords or word wheels has been successful. ‘Related topics’ on subscription legal databases is also invaluable. Be methodical and make notes of what you’ve searched for, and where. In this way you can go back and check if you have covered all bases.

Don’t forget books!

Some people are happier to work with hard copy material especially when they are familiar with the subject. When the item is on the shelf or in a filing cabinet, you can check queries and answer them in minutes. However items can go missing, or become out of date, which can delay your research.

One benefit with hard copy can be the collaborative nature of tracking down missing items. In small teams people generally know who has a particular book and so a conversation with a colleague may lead to finding the missing item. And you could have a helpful exchange about the research matter.

And finally, some general tips

  • Make full use of database functionality, e.g., search histories, note making
  • Keep your favourite internet resources list organised and updated
  • Subscribe to blogs that are useful to you and your practice area
  • Subscribe to one really good newsletter in your practice area
  • Make use of iPad/tablet/app/e-book technology in a way that works for you
  • Information professionals save time so ask us!