To develop a research plan, try answering the following questions:
What is the legal issue?
You may need to begin researching a legal topic or area of law before you can identify your legal issue. Consider the facts of your case and make a list of search terms that will help you find the applicable law.
Which search terms will you use?
To draft a list of search terms, think of the parties involved, such as a husband and wife, employer and employee, landlord and tenant, or creditor and debtor. Consider the places and things involved, like a marital home, wages, rent, or a loan. Useful search terms may also include potential claims and defenses and relief sought, like a spouse filing an action for a divorce and requesting alimony or child custody.
You may wish to consult a secondary source like a legal encyclopedia or a book/treatise to learn the terms used to describe an area of law. If you come across terms you do not understand, try a legal dictionary.
As you begin your research, you may quickly learn key terms by finding a statute or reading a case that addresses your legal issue.
What is the Controlling Jurisdiction?
A legal issue may be controlled by state law, federal law, or both. For example, if you are researching a family or probate law issue, you will likely be dealing with state statutes and cases, while bankruptcy and copyright law is controlled by federal law. The more legal research you do, the easier it will become to determine which jurisdiction controls a particular legal issue.
What is your research strategy?
Once you have a basic idea of the issue(s) and controlling jurisdiction and you create a list of possible search terms, the next step in your legal research process is to map out a research strategy. Your research strategy should include the resources you plan to consult, the order you plan to consult them, for what purpose, and in what format.
The specific resources you consult and the order you consult them may depend on the law that applies to your legal issue. With experience, it will become easier to predict whether an issue is governed by statutory law, as is most crimes, or negligence, which is a common law claim. Otherwise, consulting a secondary source, such as a legal encyclopedia or book/treatise can be very helpful in deciding where to begin your research.