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LRAW Research Fall 2024

The Research Plan

The following are key steps in the legal research planning process:

Identify the Relevant Facts

You must read and understand the facts of your client's case to determine which facts appear relevant to the legal issue at hand, knowing that your first impression may change as you conduct your preliminary research and learn more about the applicable laws.  

Draft a Preliminary Issue Statement

Drafting a preliminary issue statement helps you to focus your research. If you are unfamiliar with a legal topic or area of law, you may need to conduct preliminary research to identify your legal issue.

For the closed memo, you were given a group of court opinions and asked to choose the ones that were relevant to the facts of your client's case. Your goal was to predict whether the evidence supported a claim. Your analysis of that claim required you to identify the applicable rule contained within those opinions and to apply it to the facts of your client's case.

For the open memo, you have determined the relevant facts at issue, identified the applicable South Carolina statute(s), and conducted preliminary case law research. To complete your analysis, you must finalize your research.

Generate Search Terms

As you consider the facts of a legal problem and the legal issue(s) involved, you will naturally think of search terms that you can use to consult an index, a table of contents, a topic outline, or to use in a keyword search. To draft a list of search terms, think of the parties and the places and things involved. Useful search terms may also include potential claims and defenses and relief sought

Generating a list of relevant search terms often requires a basic knowledge of the vocabulary of the controlling area of law. If you are unfamiliar with a particular area of law, consult a secondary source such as a legal encyclopedia or a book or treatise on the topic. If you come across terms you do not understand, try a legal dictionary.

You might easily identify key search terms with just a little preliminary research, particularly if you find a statute or read a case that addresses your legal issue. 

Determine the Controlling Jurisdiction

You were told the controlling jurisdiction for the closed memo and you know the controlling jurisdiction for the open memo is South Carolina state law and state courts.  As you gain more knowledge of the law and more experience as a legal researcher, you will become better able to discern whether a particular legal issue is controlled by state law, federal law, or both. For example, for a family, probate, or criminal law issue, you typically will be dealing with state statutes and cases, while bankruptcy and copyright issues are controlled exclusively by federal law.

Develop a Research Strategy

Once you have a basic idea of the relevant facts and issue(s) involved and have generated a list of possible search terms for your client's problem, the next step in the legal research planning process is to map out a search strategy. Your research strategy should include the sources 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 in which you consult them will depend on the law that applies to the problem you are researching, which could include statutory law, common law, or both.  Experienced researchers know instinctively when a problem is governed by statutory law, as are most crimes, or is a common law claim like negligence or invasion of privacy. Otherwise, consulting a secondary source, like a legal encyclopedia or treatise can be very helpful in deciding where to begin your research. 

To research a common law rule, you might locate relevant opinions using the index to the S.C. Digest 2d or a keyword search in the South Carolina cases database of an electronic resource like Westlaw or Lexis. Once you have one good case, you can take advantage of its headnotes to find more opinions on that same legal topic. You should also use a citator, (KeyCite or Shepard's) to make sure each case you intend to use in your memo is still good law (not overruled, reversed, or superseded by statute), as well as to find cases and secondary sources that cite them.

For the Open Memo you are researching a South Carolina statute. In print or online, annotations to a statute help you find related statutes, cases interpreting and applying the statute, and relevant secondary sources on the legal issues addressed by the statute.

You will always use a citator (KeyCite or Shepard's) to make sure any statute or case you plan to use in your memo is still good law, as well as to find cases and secondary sources that cite them.  

Once you find a relevant case, always read that case and the cases relied on by the court both to understand the court's reasoning and as an efficient research tool.

Below is a list of the basic steps in the legal research plan and process. For a detailed list of the steps involved in researching a problem with a state statute, see the Checklist for Researching a Problem with a State Statute in this Research Plan & Process unit.

Steps in the Legal Research Process

  1. Determine the legal issue you need to research. Draft a preliminary issue statement.
  2. Create a list of search terms considering the parties, places, and things involved and the claims, defenses, and relief sought.
  3. Consult a secondary source (legal dictionary, encyclopedia, law review article, treatise, etc.) for background information and preliminary research.
  4. Determine the controlling jurisdiction (state, federal, or both).
  5. Develop and implement a strategy to find primary mandatory authority (statutes, regulations, and cases in the controlling jurisdiction) that address your legal issue.
  6. Read the statutes, regulations, and cases as you find them. Read the cases cited in the cases you find.
  7. Use a citator (Shepard's, KeyCite) to update the resource you find and to find primary and secondary sources that cite those sources.
  8. Record the citation information for each resource as you find it. Include pincites.
  9. Ask questions when you are struggling to find resources relevant to your issue or to narrow your research.
  10. Stop when the only relevant resources you're finding are only citing resources you've already found.