5 Tips for Legal Research all Law Students Should Know
One of the key skills you develop at University as a law student is legal research… but it is by no means easy. Long confusing judgements, quite literally thousands of pages of reading, Latin phrases… reading legal sources can be a complete minefield. So here are 5 tips that I wish I was told back in my first year.
1. Use Practical Law or Lexis PSL
One key topic that all law students go through is the Legal Essentials / English Legal System module in first year. All universities cover this slightly differently but there should be a part that goes though how to use search engines. What they don’t tell you is how useful lexis PSL and Practical Law are.
These are the databases that practitioners use (usually as a starting point) and are full of up to date information with citations in a clear and simplified manner. As a law student, reading is one of the longest and most laborious things you can do. Sitting there for hours reading a 50-page judgement to get through it all and realise that you didn’t understand a thing… it happens and its painful. But by using Lexis PSL and Practical law will give you an overview of those key cases and put them in a practical context of how lawyers really use them. So much time and stress could have been saved if I used these sources in first year.
2. Look at the objectives before you start your reading / research
It is common for most universities it give you way too much reading in the hope it ‘improves your skim reading skills’. In reality when completing a degree, those miniscule point of niche law that you have to spend 10 minutes re-reading and unpacking, will have no relevance to the seminar you have and is extremely unlikely to come up in the exam. If it is a case of point of law that is necessary for the exam, your teacher will flag it up. It is better trying to remember the key concepts rather than memorise the whole textbook.
Look at the objectives and learning outcomes before you start reading. That means you can do more targeted reading and may be able to cut out completely irrelevant sections. Or by looking over the headings in the area, you can come back to the relevant ones later if you come across a question which is relevant to that section. Don’t attempt to read the text book from cover to cover… it won’t help.
In practice, solicitors do not memorise every single niche point of law… they do research when necessary. As law students we all need to operate like this as well.
3. Learn how to use the legal databases properly
As I mentioned earlier, your university may have a module that helps you use the legal data bases. This is all well and good, but it’s nothing compared to actually trying to use one… especially as the language used in these judgements and legislation may not be present day English as we understand it today.
The only way to properly learn how to use these databases is to practice. It may be long and frustrating, but it’s the only real way you learn… and let’s be honest, it’s a hell of a lot easier than researching from books.
If there are extra seminars which teach you how to use them then attend. Legal research is one of the key things you do on work experience placements, vacation schemes, as a trainee and a paralegal. It’s an extremely important skill to develop and you will stand out you can do it well.
4. Find out which method of citation your University uses
There are many different forms of citation, and different universities prefer to use different ones. Find out which one your university uses and get their handbook.
They are available for free online if your university doesn’t provide you with a copy. Even if they say you won’t lose marks for citation, it improves the aesthetics of the page if you make an effort to professionally format and cite it. If it looks good, the marker will immediately become positive about your work.
When writing papers, dissertations and research projects, citation is extremely important. You will lose marks if the guidelines aren’t followed. You could even be disqualified for plagiarism if you haven’t given sources the credit they deserve.
5. Don’t let the complex words and confusing judgements put you off
The law is full of Latin words, long/complicated phrases and tests that may be centuries old. Don’t fear it, embrace it. One of the fun things doing a degree in law is the academic side to it. There is nothing better than memorising the meaning of a strange Latin phrase that will have no other use than to be used in a joke with other law-studying friends.
In order to make the law accessible to all, it must be sufficiently clear for everyone to understand, whether they are legal professionals or not. In any case, there is a push to make legal language less complicated. Although that isn’t completely the case and judgements do still tend to still be long and complicated, encompassing a old archaic language… with sources such as Lexis PSL and Practical law, and other secondary sources, this information generally is simplified for everyone to understand.
So, don’t worry if you don’t understand the primary sources for law straight away. The more experienced you are the easier you will find it to interpret primary sources. And there will always be a secondary source that makes it simple and clear.