Before you start conducting legal research, you should ALWAYS ask and answer some preliminary questions.
1. What am I looking for?
It is important to start with this question because if you do not know what you are looking for you will not know whether you found it or not. You may think, this is pretty obvious, but you would be surprised how many researchers do not know for sure what they are looking for. Many times researchers want to jump right into solving the problem and getting their answer, but it is critical to success to take a few moments and think about the problem and what information you need.
What you are looking for will depend on what you are doing with the information. For example, are you writing memorandum of law? Are you writing a scholarly article on the topic of immigration, or are you filing a form? The answer to questions like these will tell you what type of information you are looking for. For example, you may need a case to support a point of law; information about the conditions of the alien’s native country to support asylum; or marriage records or baptismal records. You may also need historical information, scholarly articles, statistics, or forms.
Once you know what you are looking for, then you need to make a determination of where to find the information.
2. Where would I find this information?
Different types of information are created and collected by different entities and maintained in different resources. For example, scholarly articles are collected by trade organizations or educational institutions; marriage records are collected by states; historical information may be in state or educational resources; case law is created and collected by local, state, or national judicial bodies, but it is generally made available through other entities. Knowing who creates the information and where it is stored will help you in determining where to start your research.
Next, you must determine how much time you have available or the amount of time you are authorized to research the problem.
3. How much time do I have?
It is critical to know how much time you have to research a problem. Research requires a lot of reading, analysis, and synthesis of information, often dispersed throughout multiple resources. Many researchers underestimate the amount of time it takes to research legal problems. As a legal researcher, you don’t want to spend hours researching a legal issue only to find out you will not be getting paid for it. Determining how much time you have to research your project is ALWAYS a preliminary question that you must answer.
Finally, you need to ask,
4. How much money do I have to research?
Often researchers don’t realize it, but research actually costs money! There are labor costs for the time of the person conducting the research and there are generally fees if you are conducting research on a fee based database. Therefore, it is critical to know how much money you can spend researching for a project. Additionally, this question goes along with the previous question regarding how much time you have, but time and money are not necessary parallel in amount. (Meaning you may have a deadline where you only have 5 hours to research, but you may be able to spend whatever it takes to get this information; whereas in another instance, you may have months to complete research, but you are limited in the amount of money you can spend.