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LRAW Research Fall 2024

Research is...


"Research is more than words on a screen. The ability to compose a search in Westlaw, Lexis, or Google does not translate into being a good, or even a competent, researcher.  Research is a complex, intellectual activity that requires students to exercise their minds, hone their analytical skills, and make valid and accurate distinctions. Good research builds confidence."


Caroline L. Osborne, A Methodical Approach to Legal Research: The Legal Research Plan, an Essential Tool for Today's Law Student and New Attorney, 32 Legal Reference Servs. Q. 54, 62 (2013).

The Research Process

Know Your Resources
The first step in any legal research process is to become familiar with the legal resources available for researching your particular legal issue.

Through our readings and videos, in-class exercises, and quizzes this fall, you have learned how to:

  1. locate a statute applicable to a given set of facts
  2. use the annotations to that statute to locate relevant cases and secondary sources
  3. research cases on a specific legal issue 
  4. find more cases on the same topic using the headnotes from the cases you found.
  5. use citators to find cases and secondary sources that cited the statutes and cases you found. 


Develop and Implement Your Research Plan

Now that you are familiar with the resources available to you and know how to research state statutes and state case law, you are ready for the second step in the research process — to formulate a strategy or research plan for your open memo research. We address The Research Plan in detail in the next section. 

The main goal of legal research is to find mandatory authority, which is the law from the highest authority (local, state or federal) that controls your legal issue. Relevant statutes are mandatory. Relevant cases from higher courts than the court where your issue would be heard are also mandatory.

Remember that none of these three type of authority are mandatory. These are all persuasive

  1. statutes and cases from another jurisdiction;
  2. decisions from courts on the same level or below within your own jurisdiction; and
  3. all secondary authority (non-law).

You may wish to review the Weight of Authority section in the U.S. Legal System unit, which includes a chart on Evaluating Legal Resources.

You will not cite the law of another jurisdiction in your memo if there is law squarely on point in South Carolina. Furthermore, although secondary sources can be extremely useful for identifying relevant mandatory authority and persuasive analysis, you will never cite a secondary source as mandatory authority in your memo. All secondary sources are persuasive only.

Implementing a research plan requires organization. Strategies for staying organized as you research include:

  • sticking to your plan; 
  • reading and updating the statutes and cases as you find them; 
  • taking good notes on why each case is important; and
  • recording citation information as you go along. 

Both Westlaw and Lexis offer a Folders feature. Both allow you to take notes, save, and organize your research materials by topic.

Perhaps the most important strategy for effective and efficient legal research is to ask questions when you are struggling to find resources relevant to your issue or to narrow your research.


Know When to Stop

A good rule of thumb for knowing when to stop researching a legal issue is when the resources you're finding only reference (1) other resources you have already found, and (2) resources that are not relevant to your issue. 

You have a tremendous headstart on your research because of the in-class exercises you have done. At this point, your next steps are:

  1. Review the work you did on in-class exercises, and follow-up on any questions you may have.
  2. Re-read the resources you found, and ensure that you have them well-organized.
  3. Doublecheck that you have employed all the search tools and strategies that were taught this semester for researching state statutes and case law. Follow-up on any loose ends, and remember the rule of thumb above.
  4. Then you should feel confident that you have conducted a thorough search.

A detailed Checklist for Researching a Problem with a State Statute is included in this Research Plan & Process unit.