LAW SCHOOL | How to do Legal Research
How to Become a Legal Researcher
Legal researchers assist attorneys during the pre-trial process by reviewing, interpreting, and identifying relevant law and case precedent to help answer a specific question or to help resolve an issue in dispute.In addition to research tasks, legal researchers also draft correspondence and certain legal documents, interact with clients and witnesses, and maintain certain records. The training to become a legal researcher is similar to that required for a paralegal.
Acquiring the Required Credentials
Earn an Associate's degree.The most common path to employment as a legal researcher is to obtain an associate's degree.These two-year programs are available through community colleges, universities, and online.Look for a program that is accredited by the American Bar Association.
- You will take courses that prepare you for a legal-research career, such as training with legal software applications, legal research methodology, legal writing and terminology, and trial procedure.
- While you earn your degree, try to participate in an internship program, in which you can gain practical, hands-on experience by working in a legal setting (such as a firm) for a short time to supplement your academic study.This will not only help you improve your technical skills, but also will make you a more attractive candidate for potential employers.
Earn a Bachelor's Degree.Many employers—especially larger law firms or government legal departments—will want you to have at least a four-year Bachelor's degree to function as a legal researcher in their office.Some schools offer a legal studies degree that will prepare you for this type of work.
- You don't have to major in some sort of pre-law discipline to pursue this type of career, however.Majoring in philosophy, economics, journalism, history, political science, or English are a few other types of majors that will make you a good candidate.
- Try to take courses that cover American law, constitutional law, civil/criminal law, legal writing, and research methods.
Obtain a paralegal certification.After you obtain an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree (especially if your bachelor's degree is in a field other than legal studies), it will be helpful to obtain certification from a recognized professional organization, like the National Association of Legal Assistantsor the American Alliance of Paralegals.While this is not required for this type of employment, it can certainly help distinguish you from other applicants.
- You will have to study for, take, and pass an exam that consists of multiple-choice, matching, and true/false questions that measure your knowledge of communication, judgment and analytical ability, ethics, legal research, and substantive law.
- You should be looking for a Certified Paralegal ("CP") or Certified Legal Assistant ("CLA") certification.
- Some employers may explicitly require this type of certification.Regardless of whether the employer asks for this professional certification, you should draw attention to it on your resume.
Earn a J.D.This three-year degree is required to become a lawyer, and some employers (such as state or federal courts) require this degree for you to be employed as a legal researcher.This degree will acquaint you with more in-depth legal skills, such as case analysis, statutory interpretation, and the broader concepts that underlie American law and the American legal system.
- This degree can be quite expensive, however, and is unnecessary if you want to work strictly as a legal researcher. However, it provides a great option for career advancement down the road.
Earn a Master's degree.Another higher-level degree you can earn to make yourself a more attractive legal-research candidate is a Master's degree in legal studies. This type of degree will allow you to gain specialized experience in one or more areas of the law, such as intellectual-property or corporate law, which can set you apart from other candidates with more generalized educations.
- This is a good idea if you know what kind of law you want to practice, or are passionate about working in a specific area of the legal field.
- With this degree, you will also be able to teach others how to become paralegals or legal assistants.
Developing the Required Skills
Develop your research skills.As the job title suggests, the most important skill you must develop in order to be a successful legal researcher is your ability to conduct research effectively and efficiently.You will be required to understand and analyze diverse sources of law (state and federal statutes, local ordinances, court opinions, etc.) and know the way in which they interact with each other (e.g., that federal law is supreme to state law) in order to answer research questions assigned to you.
- You will also likely be responsible for conducting interviews and investigations as part of your research tasks.
- Legal research is different than just typing a few terms or a phrase into Google. Because the legal-research databases most commonly used by firms and legal departments (Westlaw and LexisNexis) charge per search, you will want to know how to search effectively by taking some time to think about what you need to search for, identifying helpful terms, and targeting your search as narrowly as possible to find the information you need.
Develop your writing skills.After you conduct your research, you must be able to present it in a clear, organized, and concise manner to the person who assigned you the research task.Developing your ability to write accurately and effectively to convey information is second in importance only to your ability to conduct research in the first place.
Develop your attention to detail.This is another important skill for anyone in the legal field.You will have to pay attention to particular facts about case precedent, such as date, jurisdiction, and ultimate disposition of the case. You will need to use often-complicated forms of citation to indicate where you found a particular statute or other piece of information. You will need to be precise with your written products, making sure the facts of a particular case are presented accurately in a motion or brief.
Develop your multi-tasking and organizational skills.You will likely have many different cases and research tasks assigned to you at any given time, often with quick and often-shifting deadlines.You will need to be able to prioritize certain tasks, determine the best order in which to complete your work, and maintain all of your work (both past, ongoing, and future) in a way that you can present the product of your work when it is asked for.
Develop your computer skills.In this digital age, much (if not all) of your work will be done on a computer. You will need to be familiar with how to utilize legal-research software (such as Westlaw or LexisNexis), how to access statutes and court options online, navigate common operating systems, how to use word-processing and e-mail software, and how to use organize and maintain legal documents using digital databases.Therefore, you will want to make sure you are well-versed in these tasks to make yourself an attractive candidate for employers.
- Most employers will show you how to use the specific software they use when you start employment. However, the more up-front knowledge and experience you have, the less resources the employer will need to devote to training you, making you a more attractive hire.
Finding Employment as a Legal Researcher
Draft a quality resume.Once you have obtained the necessary education/certifications, you are ready to begin looking for work as a legal researcher. Your first step should be to make sure your resume is written in such a way to maximize your chances of employment. Highlight any relevant degrees and certifications you hold, draw attention to any internships or related employment you have, and mention skills that will be of interest to a legal employer (namely, demonstrated skill in research, writing, and interpersonal relations).
Find out who hires legal researchers.Legal researchers are needed throughout the legal market and can be hired by anyone conducting legal work. For example, many government agencies, law firms, congressional or legislative offices, corporations, and even freelancers need the services of a qualified legal researcher. Most often you will be utilized to help attorneys with the cases they have. This will often include conducting legal research into statutory, regulatory, and judicially created laws so the attorney can make legal arguments based on what you find.
- If you are having trouble finding a job as a legal researcher, try expanding your search. Your services are needed in a lot of areas and if you are willing to work anywhere you will often find a job.
Use your school's career-placement service.Once you have your resume up to date, a great place to begin looking for employment as a legal researcher is to enlist the aid of your school in finding a job.Visit your school's career center and meet with a career counselor. Tell him or her what kind of job you're looking for, and they should be able to point you in the right direction.
- They might even have contacts that can land you an interview or informational interview that can lead to a job.
Apply to a wide range of positions.When you are applying for employment as a legal researcher, you should do your best to apply to a variety of different positions and employers.Most legal assistants work for law firms, corporate legal departments, or government agencies.By casting a wide net, you are more likely to find an employer that appreciates and can make use of your particular skills, education, and experience.
Conduct informational interviews.Informational interviews are informal conversations with people in your field of work. While they are not job interviews, you should treat them as though they may lead to a job. As a legal researcher, you can look for paralegals, research specialists, and attorneys to talk to in order to further your career search. To conduct a successful informational interview:
- Find people to interview. Look for individuals that would be willing and able to speak with you about the career of a legal researcher, including how to get a job, who to talk to, and common career paths people take. Look for paralegals, research specialists, and even attorneys. Talk with your friends and family and see if they may know some people you could contact. You can also contact organizations directly and ask if they have a legal researcher on staff. Read the newspaper and see if any articles mention legal research and, if they do, contact the subject of the article. Finally, contact your alumni association and ask about people working in the legal research field.
- Prepare. Before you contact the people you have found, you should prepare a short introduction that explains who you are and why you are calling. In addition, you should be prepared to conduct the informational interview in case the person insists.
- Make contact. When you are ready, you should make contact by either calling or sending a formal email to the person. Mention how you got their name and why you are calling. Be sure you tell them you are not looking for a job but you simply want a chance to discuss the field. Ask for a convenient time to meet in-person and set an appointment.
- Conduct the interview. When it is time for your interview, dress as if it were a job interview and be ready to direct the conversation. Ask open-ended questions about the job the person has, how they got it, and what path they took to get there. If you are talking with an attorney, ask about their hiring criteria and what they look for in a legal researcher. Be sure you listen carefully and take notes if you need to. Importantly, always ask if they have other contacts they would be willing to introduce you to.
- Follow-up. A day or two after the interview, follow-up with the person and thank them for their time. Let them know how appreciative you are for their willingness to talk. Keep in touch with the person and let them know how you are utilizing the information they gave you.
- If you already have experience/education in a field such as nursing, health administration, criminal justice, or tax preparation, some employers may hire you as a legal researcher with no additional training or certification.
- A legal researcher can work as a freelancer, either for a firm or on a contract basis.
Video: Class 1 - Beginning Legal Research
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