Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When to Stop Researching: after locating a variety of legal resources on topic

The question of when to stop researching is a difficult one to answer. This is an issue that arises in two different contexts. The first is when to stop researching when you do not locate any results. The second, and more common context, is when to stop researching after locating a variety of legal resources addressing your topic; specifically, when is your research complete? do you know when you are done?

This week's post focuses on the second issue -- when your research is complete after locating various authorities. Last week's post focused on the first issue -- when you should stop researching if you are unsuccessful in finding relevant results.

With experience, legal researchers learn when to stop researching; mainly through the experience of researching more without results. It becomes an intuitive skill that develops over time. However, if you are new to legal research, and you have located a wide variety of sources that address the particular issue you are researching, the following considerations may help you decide when to end your research.

  • When researching and locating primary authority, remember you should always try to locate a mandatory primary resource for each legal issue. What if you find multiple cases on topic? Select mandatory authority over persuasive authority. If you locate several mandatory cases, choose the case(s) that is/are most factually and legally similar, that analyze(s) the law most clearly, and that is/are from the highest court. In other words, choose the lead case or cases. If you are lucky enough to find the answer to your question, be sure to Shepardize or KeyCite the authority to ensure it is still good law and identify any authority that affects its application.
  • When researching and locating several secondary authorities on point, remember that it is not necessary to include such authority if the primary authority found provides a clear answer to your question. However, checking a secondary authority is a good way to ensure your understanding of the proper analysis. Additionally, it may be helpful to reference such sources in order to provide your reader with a comprehensive treatment of the relevant issue. In any case, the information located in secondary sources may inform your own searching methods. Stop researching in secondary resources when this commentary becomes repetitive.
  • Whatever type of authority you are researching in, you may find an obvious repetition of citations and notice that you are not gleaning any new information. If you keep finding the same authority from a variety of search methods and resources, you are done. Research is circular in nature. Looking at various resources, you may keep coming back to the same results. This is a good sign that you have exhausted the need for further research. One rule of thumb is to check two or three sources on the same topic to see if they all cite to the same authority.
  • Be sure you have identified all issues necessary to fully address your issue.
  • Be sure you have looked at each issue from both sides. For example, consider what defenses and procedural challenges could be brought.
Please let the Research Librarians know if you need any assistance.

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