Legal Research: The Library and the Computer

Published: Mar 10, 2009

Topics: Law       
In this article, we outline one of the most important skills of a successful litigation attorney, legal research.

If you anticipate spending most of your legal career striding up and down in front of a jury, think again. Most litigators -- especially junior ones -- spend a larger part of their time in law libraries or in front of computers. You cannot rely on a mere argument to win a case; it must be supported by thoroughly researched case law.

Research is the substance of any legal argument. No good lawyer would go into court with just his persuasive skills and a plan of action set in stone. Initially, a lawyer comes up with a tentative approach to solving the client's problem and then sets about researching the relevant law. Junior associates will research each issue and try to find as many cases as possible that support the proposed argument or suggest a viable alternative. When a "bad" case shows up, one that runs against his client's position, a competent litigator will not hide it. Instead, he will try to distinguish that case, to differentiate it from his client's situation or show why it does not govern this case. If that's not possible, he will re-formulate his argument -- hopefully before the litigation has gone on too far. Hiding the case would be useless; remember, the opposing party is likely researching the same questions and will probably have found the same case. The last thing a good litigator wants is to be sideswiped in court by a case he either ignored or didn't know existed. Better to have an active defense and be prepared. That is the goal of all legal research.

You might find no case similar to your client's in your jurisdiction, but a case like yours might have been decided in another state. You can argue that it applies to the present instance. But you'll need to know the facts of the case, the relevant laws and the cases that influenced the judge's decision. You'll need to make sure that any cases you rely on are still "good law" -- that is, not overruled by more recent decisions or a higher court. While this sounds like enough work, in reality, there probably won't even be a case just like yours in any jurisdiction. (If the law were that easy, there would be less litigation!) So you'll have start the process by looking for a case that supports the argument you're trying to make. Hopefully you'll find something close. If you're unlucky, you'll find something that goes directly against your argument. At that point, you'll have to distinguish that case or amend your argument and start from scratch.

Sound confusing? It's easier when you get the hang of it. Some litigators enjoy this investigation into the law. And there's nothing like crafting an airtight argument for your case. But if the idea of spending hours in front of a computer screen, scouring legal databases for the perfect case, actually gives you the hives, then you might want to think twice about a litigation career. "Maybe 10 years ago, you could get away with mediocre computer skills," says a senior litigation associate at a large firm. "Now you can't. Our firm has a couple of partners who don't have computers, but believe me, they're the exception to the rule. You won't get anywhere in litigation without good computer skills."