Law Practice Tip #9: Start Your Research From 20,000 Feet

I admit it: I like Google. It makes life easier.

Occasionally, when I am given an issue to research by one of the partners, I’m inclined to just punch it into Google, if just to see what comes up, hoping that maybe I’ll get lucky and find the answer right away. Sometimes it works; usually, it doesn’t. In fact, usually, I end up wasting me a lot of time looking through links that are only marginally helpful to my research. With Google, you never know what kind of research you’re going to get.

On the other hand, if I can discipline myself to hit the library, start with something broad, like the Corpus Juris Secundum, I’m more likely to find what I’m looking for. The CJS, to continue using it as an example, provides a broad overview of the law. It gives the landscape that I’ll be walking through as I look for whatever arcane and minute point I’ve been tasked to find.

At that point, with what I call a 20,000 foot view of the issue (as in, 20,000 feet up), it’s easier to zero in on whether I need to hit the statutes, case-law, or a treatise on the topic. I know where to start getting specific, what stuff to ignore, and what some of the vocabulary I’m likely to run into means.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I still end up using Google. But then it’s usually Google Scholar to look up a specific case, or just to see what else might be available out there.

APROPOS: This principle applies beyond law. I see a lot of friends citing things like Wikipedia for their research. Wikipedia is a great tool to get started on research–like the CSJ it provides a broad overview of just about every topic under the sun. However, it’s just that: a great place to start. Good research is going to dig deeper, check whether Wikipedia has cited relevant and trustworthy sources, and add further research. It’s just the 20,000 foot starting point, not the answer.

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