Learning law research: top tips from a top city firm

Learning law research: top tips from a top city firm

December, 17, 2010 • Posted by 0 Comments

In her invaluable article for ‘Legal Information Management’, ‘Law firm legal research – what trainees need to know’, Caroline Tuckwell gives us the best legal research tips that are taught to trainees by top city firm Herbert Smith. These are based on asking partners, associates and professional support lawyers within the firm for their criticisms and observations on the research notes that trainees were producing. They are as follows:

  • When given a problem to research, trainees should try at that stage to ensure that they understand exactly what is being asked of them in terms of content, the timescale and the desired format of the research and to seek clarification if necessary. It is better to delay starting the task until the trainees are sure what it entails than realise several hours later that they have not fully understood, require more information and may have to start again.
  • Before trainees embark on research which is fact dependent, rather than just being on a purely legal issue, they should make a list of what the key factual issues are and obtain, wherever possible, all relevant documentation providing that factual information. PSLs frequently report occasions where trainees have asked them for assistance, but it has become clear that they do not have sufficient facts to proceed. While it is only with experience that one becomes fully aware of what the key factual points are, trainees should be encouraged to think in these terms before they rush to the library or the PSL for help.
  • Again, before embarking on the memorandum, trainees should bear in mind that this research is not just some hypothetical task to test their analytical skills, but it is going to be translated into advice for the client. Whilst the memorandum should set out the relevant law, it should wherever possible reach a conclusion and contain practical advice such as timing of next steps, documentation to be drafted and possibly what further information may be necessary to progress the matter. This is an area which trainees, understandably, find hard. It does come easier once they have had exposure to clients and realise that ultimately clients are generally interested more in what needs to be done, and how, as opposed to simply why.
  • There is a tendency for trainees to think that the longer the memorandum is the better it is. This is simply wrong. There is a vast amount of information available to them which can be overwhelming. Trainees need to be discerning about what they include: if a case is irrelevant, albeit interesting, it should not be included. If there are ten authorities all supporting the argument, only one should be included.
  • It is not possible to twist the facts to suit the law. That may sound a very obvious point, but there are examples of key facts being suitably ignored so that the situation will fit nicely into a given scenario echoed in the case law. Life is not generally as convenient as that and the trainees have to be alive to this. As every individual case is different, a trainee will need to use reason and judgment to come to a conclusion and this leads to perhaps the most common failing.
  • Trainees often find it difficult to “pin their colours” to a conclusion preferring to sit on the fence. Unlike law school or university, often there will not be an answer to the problem they have been asked to explore. They will have to consider the case law or the statutory provisions and using their judgment, form a view. As long as trainees set out how and why they have formed that view, the lawyer reading the memorandum can follow the reasoning and possibly challenge it. Whilst the client is paying for us to form a judgment and may be interested to know that there are a range of possible options, ultimately they will only be interested in what the lawyer’s preferred option is.
  • From a supervisor’s perspective one of the most important aspects of the research is that all the sources used are clearly identified. It is important that the supervisor is able to judge quickly the value of the research memo by checking that all relevant sources have been utilised. Unfortunately there are examples of trainees mistaking a “Google” search for a thorough piece of legal research.
  • Whilst we undoubtedly have a lot to be thankful for in terms of our “Generation Y” trainees’ abilities to use electronic resources instinctively, valuable skills are being lost including referencing, using and cross-referring hard copy source materials and, in particular, the ability to use an index quickly and effectively.

Law students and researchers alike will benefit from following these invaluable law research tips ‘from the inside’.

For the full article, see Tuckwell, C, Law firm legal research – what trainees need to know, L.I.M. 2010, 10(2), 108-110. For more information on opportunities at Herbert Smith, see http://www.herbertsmith.com/Careers/