If you were to ask someone what things are certain in life, you would probably get the classic answer: “death and taxes.” For those in the legal field, there is one more certainty to add to that list: legal research. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in this field who can say they have never done legal research, and for good reason. Being able to do this kind of research is an essential skill for any advocate, in any practice area, which is why law students are faced with multiple assignments requiring extensive research before they can even think about walking away with a J.D. in 3-to-4 years. Over the course of their education, students are given what are, without a doubt, extremely effective multi-step research methods. They are taught to begin with secondary source material, move on to primary, synthesize these primary sources (particularly cases) by creating the dreaded IRAC or CRAC for the cases they encounter, and following the throughlines of supporting or contrary authorities cited within cases until we “reach the end of the rabbit hole” (as phrased by a current Haub Law student), before returning to our initial issues to see what remains unanswered or what new questions have arisen. This method is by no means bad or ineffective; there is a reason it is taught. But it can be incredibly time consuming, which is why several students I have spoken to have modified this method in their own ways to suit their styles, needs, and attention spans. Even so, while some issues may not be so complicated—only requiring 3-to-4 hours maximum to answer an entire question—others can rack up hours into the double digits just to scratch the surface on an issue or question. These are often questions posed by a professor that knows there is an abundance of authority for their question, and who can refer students to research staff like law librarians (who deserve far more credit than they get in the successes of many a 1L).
With that being the case, what are most law school educated professionals (whether they are law clerks, paralegals, or the roughly 50% of graduates who go into law firm practice) supposed to do when they are suddenly faced not only with deadlines, but time limits on how long they can spend researching a client’s legal question or issue before they start costing their firm money? It is not a secret that legal work is expensive; so, it is neither uncommon nor unreasonable for a client to tell their lawyer “I can only afford to pay you a total of XYZ, please do not do more work than what I can afford.” In the same vein, no one, especially a freshly barred first year associate, wants to be told that their firm will have to “eat” some or all of the hours they spent researching because they exceeded what a client stated they could afford. Research that is haphazardly done to merely stay under a time limit is not the answer—we all learned in our professional responsibility courses, attorneys owe their clients “diligence” and “competence,” which includes thorough preparation. But, going over your client’s billable hour limits is not the answer either. So, what is the answer? It is planning. “Lawyers are often balancing time and completeness,” meaning those engaging in legal research should be prepared to straddle the line between being accurate and being mindful of just how much time they spend, and this is especially true for those working under strict billable hour limits. And the best way to achieve that is by having a solid foundation planned out ahead of time. The advice I have been given is that careful preparation can make the research go smoother, and thus faster. So, when planning how you will tackle a research assignment, there are several strategies to keep in mind.
Understand the Question You Are Being Asked
That sounds pretty simple, right? Well, not necessarily. I was told by a firm partner that the question you are assigned to answer may not actually be the client’s question, but a component that the assigning attorney has identified as a core problem. So, you should understand not just what you are being asked, but why. Consider your client’s motivations, how their personal situations may affect what courses of action they would find acceptable, and what their ultimate goal is. This information may not be in the facts you get from your assigning attorney, but do not be afraid to ask for it. These are important questions to understand before your research goes forward and can impact your client; without them you are going in blind.
Isolate your Issues
What is the big picture issue, or issues you have to research? Break that down into smaller issues. Even a simple question of whether a client was required to follow a particular regulation can have issue upon issue within it. This is very fact-specific and requires you to have thorough knowledge not just of what the actual issue or question is that has been posed to you, but also the facts of your client’s matter or case. You may need to research how a word has been interpreted, how a definition or standard has been applied, how broad a statute is constructed, or what exceptions may exist, and these smaller answers may come together to give you the answer you have been tasked to find, or even alter your client’s big picture goals or desired outcome. By making note of this first, you stay focused and on track in the face of many off-shoot issues that might come up in your research.
Take Stock of Your Resources
Not every firm has the same resources as others and not every firm will have the same resources you would have used in law school. Be mindful of that as you figure out how you are going to research. A firm may not have access to multiple legal databases and/or may not have the resources to employ a dedicated research paralegal, but they may have previous case files on similar issues which may point you in the direction of a solid argument or a particularly helpful piece of case law. There may be another attorney or paralegal on staff who is familiar with the issues you have been assigned and can point you in the right direction. Google is your friend as a starting point for basic questions, Google Scholar even more so for more sophisticated topics. It is often true that the attorney assigning you a research task may already have an idea of where to start (a specific case or statute, for example), so do not neglect the actual assigning attorney as a resource as well. You may have the traditional sources like legal databases and law dictionaries at your disposal, or you may need to be creative, but in either case, know what you have access to and how it can help further your research before you start.
Save Time for Feedback & Further Research
This next tip can be firm-specific. You will want to discuss with the attorney assigning you this research to see their preferences on how you spend and conserve your research time. But I have always found it helpful to budget some time as padding in advance to receive and engage with feedback from either the assigning attorney or co-counsel on what you have found. This person may want you to delve deeper into an argument you found, may not feel one of their questions has been answered, and/or may have entirely new questions for you. If you use up all of your allotted research time (especially when you have not been explicitly told that your time limit was solely for this piece of research) and are then faced with more research-able work, you are stuck having to potentially either go over the client’s billable hour limit (resulting in an unhappy client) or having your firm not bill for this time (resulting in an unhappy partner). If given the option by the attorney assigning the research, it is better to have time left over and not need it than to suddenly find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Set Time Limits
At first, this might seem counter intuitive. Why would you want to put more time limits on yourself than you already have from the client? This goes back to accuracy and completeness. Once you have your isolated issues and set aside some padding for further research, divide up those issues in proportion to how much time you have remaining for your research and be sure to stick to it. For example, if you have 6 hours allotted (not including your padding) to research 3 issues, note that you have a maximum of 2 hours for each issue. If you reach that 2-hour maximum on Issue 1, move to Issue 2. If there’s time left after you finish researching all three issues, then great! Go back and continue your research where you left off. If not, when you present your research to the assigning attorney or your co-counsel, be sure to make them aware of both the fact that you have some unanswered questions and that you have that handy padding time set aside to do some work on it at their direction. This ensures you actually get to all of the issues at least in part before running down your allotted research time, so you are not left with no remaining research time and an entirely unresearched issue to show for it. A partner explained that young associates often think they have an answer immediately and get overzealous, going down one path of research, where they later find themselves wondering why they’re running out of time to research and still have not gotten an answer. Make note of how much time you spend, even on a single issue. If you are an hour to an hour-and-a-half into your research on that issue and you are not near an answer, ask yourself why and re-evaluate your strategy.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
If—even after doing everything in your power to keep your research time within the limit given to you—it seems like you are going to run out of time, be sure to communicate with your co-counsel or assigning attorney. If you anticipate that this will be an issue from the get-go, communicate it to them at that time. The assigning attorney is likely the one communicating with the client, so if you anticipate that the client’s limits cannot realistically be met, they need the opportunity and ample time to have a dialogue with the client to manage their expectations and figure out a solution that works with the client’s needs and budget. If you do not let your assigning attorney know when there are potential issues impacting the client’s expectations as soon as you can, you are risking making the client particularly unhappy and giving both yourself and your assigning attorney an unnecessary challenge.
Remember This is a Learning Curve
I have heard from law students that during internships they had felt as though they had just spent too much time on an issue that they felt should’ve been easy to tackle, and so they would say they spent less time researching an issue than they actually did. When you feel like you have something to prove, it can feel embarrassing that you were not able to reach a conclusion, answer a legal question, or find that perfect piece of case law in what is either a prescribed time limit or one you put on yourself. The important thing to remember is that even post-graduation, you are still learning. Essentially, do not beat yourself up if you are an intern, summer associate, or new attorney struggling to meet these new demands. Of course, put in the effort to try and do not use your newness as an excuse, but know that your employers are aware you are still learning the ropes, and they will not expect perfection on your first go.
This may all seem daunting and like a complete divergence from research habits you have taken up in law school. But do not immediately think you’re going to be going into your research assignments completely unprepared; take some comfort in the fact that attorneys often find law students can be the best researchers because they approach these issues with fresh perspectives and can spot creative solutions. Take the time to properly prepare before engaging in your research. plan to be mindful of your remaining time, and be communicative with the assigning attorney throughout. If you do that, you are likely to not only feel better about your research process, but also actually achieve your research goals within these billable hour limits.
 Employment Outcomes As Of April 2022 (Class Of 2021 Graduates) (American Bar Association, Legal Education and Admission to the Bar) Apr. 2021. https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_t
 Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.3 (2022).
 Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.1 (2022).
 Litigators Sound Off on Their Most Time-Consuming Task, Bloomberg Law. (Feb. 7, 2020). https://pro.bloomberglaw.com/brief/litigators-sound-off-on-their-most-time-consuming-task/
Some great real world advice!