Legal research for LL.M. students: the basics


Photo by George Milton from Pexels

Legal research is an extremely important skill for lawyers, and LL.M. students will be expected to learn at least the basics of U.S. legal research. Legal research may be done through books and online. LL.M. students should be versed in both book and electronic legal research. An exhaustive treatment of legal research is behind the scope of this article but below I introduce some basic tools that LL.M. students will need. 

Traditional Legal Research: Traditional or book research is done through a number of tools. Here are some of the most important:

Case Digests:

  • Case finding tools that outline the law by subject and topic and help you locate cases that deal with a particular issue.
  • Digests are available for different jurisdictions.

Annotated Codes:

  • Annotated federal and state statutory provisions allow you to access corresponding case law, regulations, legislative history, and secondary sources.

Law Review Articles:

  • Provide the most important legal scholarship in the United States.
  • Typically deal with narrow, discrete legal issues.

Books: There are, of course, various types of law-related books in the U.S., but here are a few types of books used for research that bear special mention:

  • Encyclopedias: Offer very basic introductory research in U.S. law.
  • Restatements: State and analyze common law principles nationally.
  • Treatises: Deal comprehensively with a particular area of law.
  • Hornbooks: General background information on various subjects.
  • Commercial Looseleaf Services: Topical material, usually in administrative law fields.
  • Practice Guides: Commonly for litigation practice and procedure.
  • Form Books: Organized by jurisdiction and area of law.

Electronic Legal Research: A great deal of legal research is now done electronically through a variety of subscription-based/paid and open-access services. The most prominent of the paid services are Bloomberg, Lexis, and Westlaw. U.S. law students are given free access to these services and training in how to use them. Company representatives are also available to assist users with questions and can also tell you the advantages of their product over the others. All of these services offer outstanding search engines for case law and secondary authorities, although they may feel overwhelming at first. These services are also expensive and for most lawyers should be used sparingly. For this reason, it is important that while you are in law school, even though these paid services are free, you become well-versed in using open-access websites and traditional book research. There are many open-access sources, and some of them are excellent. Be thoughtful when you use electronic sources, however, as it is very easy for someone with no meaningful knowledge to post materials that are not vetted, sophisticated, or even accurate. 

Some excellent sites are as follows, but there are many others: 

There are, of course, many other sites that deal with specialized legal information on different topics and specific jurisdictions. 

I recommend that you peruse these sites (and others) before beginning your LL.M. studies to get a sense of what is available—and to improve your legal English skills and learn some things in your area(s) of interest.

Desiree Jaeger-Fine is a writer and author of Pursuing Happiness: One Lawyer’s Journey, A Short & Happy Guide to Networking, and A Short & Happy Guide to Being Hired.