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How to Handle Legal Research Assignments for Interns & New Associates  

Last Updated: Sep 21, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates
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Advice for Interns & New Associates

Research Guide on Handling Legal Research Assignments for the

Summer Intern or New Associate

 You can be sure that legal research will be one of the primary things you do during your summer internship or when you start as an associate or court clerk.  You may get to watch an exciting trial, sit in on important negotiations, and organize mountains of paperwork or, even carry the senior partner’s briefcase and fetch coffee.  But the real reason you are there is to do cheap legal research and writing.  It has become abundantly clear in recent years that the summer internship is no longer a guaranteed path to becoming an associate.  And, associates should be fully aware that having a job now is not a guarantee of continued employment.  That associate's position must be earned anew every day.  You are only as good as your last success.  Fortunately, at least as far as legal research is concerned, there are steps you can take to help you be as successful as possible.

 General Advice.  Remember, this is research guide contains general advice about doing legal research during your internship.  Remember, every firm, every judge, every attorney is different so not every suggestion will apply to every situation.  Think like an attorney and use your judgment to decide which suggestions to follow.  We only tell you what questions to ask – not how to ask the questions.  Be diplomatic.

Don’t be afraid to Ask Questions.  Let’s face it.  You don’t know all that much about how things work in your new legal environment.  Fortunately, the people you will be working with do.  Almost everyone will know more than you.  So ask them questions about how things work, what resources are available, where the bathroom is located.  Secretaries and paralegals know a lot.  Most large firms, federal agencies, and all federal courts have excellent librarians.  Don’t throw your weight around; be humble.  Admit that you don’t know much and use this time to learn.  Most of the people at the firm or in the judge’s chambers where you are working will expect you to ask questions.  In fact, they will wonder what kind of a person you are if you don’t ask.  So ask.

Here are some questions to make sure and ask.  You may attend an orientation session that will answer many of the questions set out below.  Make sure you pay attention during these sessions.  There are some questions that cannot be resolved in any orientation session and depend on the facts of the case and the nature of the attorney/judge giving you the assignment.  So, when you are given a research assignment take a minute before you leave the office to find out some important facts such as:

 1. What are the time constraints?  Is there a deadline?  Is the deadline realistic?  Are you supposed to drop everything and work solely on this one project?  What about the other things you are working on?  How long does the attorney or judge think the project will take?  How much time should you spend working before you check back?

 2. What are the cost factors?  What kinds of research assets can you use?  Will the client pay for Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg searches?  Is there a flat fee resource such as Fastcase that you can use?  Is the firm billing for your time and at what rate?  Has the client set any limits on research time?  What about resources outside the firm?  Can you pay for interlibrary loans or for document delivery?

 3. What is the attorney/judge really looking for?  Does he/she want an exhaustive brief or a cursory memo?  Who is going to rely on your work and for what?  Is this preliminary research or is a final product necessary?  Will you cover everything or just the basics?  Be wary of someone who says, “get me everything” or even worse “cost is no object.”  Do they really know what they are telling you to do?

 4. What are the relevant keywords?  Is there any standard legal jargon in the field in which you are researching?  Are there terms of art relevant to this research project that will help you with your keyword searching?  The person making the assignment is probably a specialist and knows the terminology; make use of that expertise.  Caveat: there may be different terminology depending on which state you are in.

 5. What is the scope of your search?  Should your search be limited to a particular jurisdiction or is everything in play?  If this is a federal question should your search be limited to just one circuit or to more?  If this is a state research problem should your search focus on one state or many and which ones?  Does your search include regulations and administrative decisions?  Is this a search for legal materials only or do you need to check non-legal sources?

 6. Is there a key resource?  Does the attorney or judge recommend a source available in the library?  Is there a favorite treatise that he or she thinks is authoritative?  Does the firm/court have access to the proper database on Westlaw or Lexis?  Not everybody has the same database coverage we have at Rutgers.

 7. Has some of the work already been done?  Is there someone in particular you should be talking with such as an expert (watch out for fees!) or an associate that had a similar issue?  Is there a “brief bank,” intranet, Knowledge Management database or other repository of materials you can work from?  Sometimes all you need to do is to build on previous work.

 8. Who will prepare your work?  Who will actually do the word processing of the brief or memo: you, a secretary/clerk, or a paralegal?  If it’s you, make sure you factor in the necessary time.  Reality check: Your time is probably worth less than that of a well-trained and experienced professional secretary or paralegal.

Don’t rush.  Slow down.  Yes, you will need to do hard work on everything you handle.  But, unless someone tells you otherwise or gives you some kind of immediate deadline, you are not in some kind of race.  Work as quickly as possible but take time to consider what you’re doing.  Don’t just start and hope for the best.  Plan out what resources you are going to look at; how you are going to tackle the problem.  Will you start with print or online resources?  Decide what the key issues really are.  If you have time, do some preliminary work to become more familiar with the field.  Learn the relevant vocabulary; see how the components of the field fit together.

Keep a research log.  Research is not a linear process.  In fact, research is often chaotic.  Something that makes little or no sense early in your research may take on significance later.  Following a lead may take you so far from what you’re after that you need help getting back.  It’s good to be able to go back to see where you’ve been and to determine if you’ve covered the bases or need to go further.  Keep track of your word searches so you don’t duplicate them. 

 Do quality work.  Many new associates/interns think they have to produce very quickly.  Quality work is always preferable to a slapdash or inferior work product.  You will need to exercise your judgment on what constitutes a thorough job.  If you can’t do a good job within the original time limits check back and explain why it is going to take longer.  It’s a good idea to check back anyway to discuss problems and to report on how things are going.  If you have been working diligently it will be easy to justify the extra time required to complete the task.  Most attorneys/judges are tolerant of the need to take more time.  They are especially tolerant if the result is a thorough, quality work product.  Many attorneys/judges will rely on what you tell them.  Although they will read key cases and statutes, they usually will not go back and perform the same research to make sure you have done it right.  You are entering a profession where people expect you to do a competent job.

 Don’t dilute the value of your work.  If it takes you ten hours to do a project put that in your time report.  If you say that a ten-hour project took you two hours you have unrealistically raised expectations.  There will be an expectation of the same quick turnaround next time and you will not be able to deliver.  The attorney/judge may also wonder what the heck you’ve been doing with your time.

 Consider the nature of your final work product.  Are you writing a brief, memo, advisory letter, or part of an opinion?  Keep notes and stay organized so when you finish your research you can get down to writing.  Time is a big issue for practicing attorneys.  They may perform only a cursory proofreading of your work and hand it directly to a client or incorporate it directly into a brief or opinion letter.  Make sure you know who your audience is.  You must look at the firm’s style manual or at other sample memos, briefs, letters, or documents to make sure you are using an accepted format.

 Some memo basics.  Be concise.  State your conclusions as clearly and as early in the memo as possible.  In fact, some attorneys/judges will appreciate a one-paragraph summary, i.e., a conclusory statement or “executive summary” of the case, the law, and its application to the facts.  Do not hide an alternative view of the law.  To be able to deal with it effectively the attorney/judge must be aware of contrary authority.  Unless otherwise instructed use the standard facts, issues presented, analysis, and conclusion format.  Using TRAC/IRAC or some other format is a good idea.

The Librarian.  Make friends with the librarian.  The librarians will often hold training sessions on how to do effective online legal research, how to utilize firm/court resources, or on basic office procedure.  In firms especially, the librarian is often a neutral party outside of the conflicts within the firm.  Librarians make great sounding boards and will often help you brainstorm to figure out what resources and research plan will work best for a particular project.

Lee Sims-June 2016


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