As a law student and an aspiring lawyer, it is crucial that, above all skills, you master researching skills. This guide covers key steps in conducting successful legal research that will support you in your academic and career life going forward.

Identifying Your Research Needs

Legal Issues

Before you start researching, it is important to understand what it is you need to find out. In other words, what is the legal issue? Once you have established that from your assignment, it will make the rest of your researching easier and more efficient.


Once you’ve established the legal issue, identify the sources you will need to conduct your research. For example, do you need to find an obiter dictum? Or do you need just a general summary of a legal development, perhaps, with comments from other scholars?


Once you’ve established the legal issue and sources, you need to establish what jurisdiction your legal issue is pertaining. Is it regarding domestic or international law? Is your primary research regarding UK law, with comparisons with other jurisdictions? This will help streamline your researching.


Finally, you have to decide how you will present this information. For example, you may collate your findings in an essay, or a reflective journal. Or let’s say a senior lawyer has asked you to give them bitesize information about an in-time legal development by tomorrow morning. It may be better to present your findings in a simple Excel spreadsheet or brief memorandum.

I remember once when I was asked by a senior lawyer to summarise some ‘overnight’ legislation about Russian sanctions and spent hours creating a 10+ page Word document. When she received it, she said my work was good, but she only needed an A4 summary.

Read a more extensive example of a legal research process.


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Reliability In Research

When you are researching, it is important to make sure that you are drawing from reliable sources. Here are some ways you can identify if a source is reliable:

  1. Check if the source is published by established publications and institutions like Law Society, GOV.UK, European Commission, Westlaw, etc.
  2. Do not fall into the trap of confirmation bias. Just because a source is familiar, like Wikipedia, it does not mean that the information is accurate or reliable.
  3. During the preliminary research stage, make sure to verify your case law citations, and check for any gaps, changes, or oversights. This will hope you avoid spending time on writing about something incorrect. Sources like GOV.UK will let you know, but you can also use cross-examination to find out.

Practical Application

When it comes to writing essays or answering exam questions, knowing a lot from your research is not enough. You need to know how to apply it to your work.

With essays, in particular, what will elevate your work from a 2:1 to a 1st is including scholarly opinions and comments to support your point. For example, “I would argue that ___, this is supported by [insert scholar], who determines that …”

It is even better if you also highlight arguments surrounding legal issues and academics that contrast each other. “Whilst [insert scholar] would argue that ___, the likes of [insert other scholar(s)] would take a more grassroot approach to the issue and believe ….”

If you are researching for a research task during your internship, for example, this will not be (as) relevant. When researching during your work experience it is imperative that you make sure that the information you draw from is reliable and accurate.

If you are researching recent news, especially, you may find that there are not many sources on it or not that much information. This requires you to do some cross-examination across different sources to find out the answer. Sometimes, there may not be a (definitive) answer to an issue, and it’s not your own fault. Just make sure to be honest about it and be confident in asking for help or clarity.

Find out more about how to improve your legal research and writing skills.

Key Takeaways

  • Make sure to understand what it is you need to research
  • Familiarise yourself with the sources you need to support your research
  • Make sure your source is accurate and reliable
  • Diversify your sources to generate great research

You may not be great at it in the beginning, but as you continue to do it, researching will become second nature to you. As a result, you will also see your grades and the calibre of your work greatly improve!


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