BEING A PARALEGAL: Effective Legal Research and Writing
Necole Floyd-Turner, JD
Kaplan University Adjunct Instructor, School of Legal Studies
Being a paralegal can be a challenging on any given day, but being what I call a paralegal extraordinaire is a totally different ball game. Now that we have discussed navigating case law, let us turn our attention conducting legal research.
Imagine that you have been employed at a law firm as a junior paralegal for about a year. The supervising attorney comes to you and explains that they have taken on a new client that has some serious tax issues. The attorney further explains that some of the client’s issues may cross jurisdictional lines into another state wants to know the applicable law in a written brief on his desk by tomorrow afternoon. You listen intently taking notes as the issues are explained but in the back of your mind, you know that if you can nail this assignment, it could pay off big time. As you may have learned in your legal studies program, sources of law are broken down into three basic categories. Those categories are primary law, secondary law and special resources. Knowing where to start can be a confusing task. But being the professional that you are, you politely smile and say “you got it”. How do you begin the research? Here we go:
Basics and Definition
I always ask my students “how do you know where you are going, if you do not know the basics”? In legal research this means knowing all the information and things that concern a client. Here, you want to know all the pertinent facts of the client’s case. From the facts of the case you can identify the key terms, from key terms you can identify issues, from the issues you can identify the legal problem and from the legal problem you can then start your first step in legal research, finding sources. I would start with secondary sources. Secondary sources are those sources that explain or expand on the law. In this category are some of my favorites, legal dictionaries, treatises, legal encyclopedias and periodicals. Many of these sources are multi-volume and have indexes where you can look up key terms.
Primary and Function
Primary law is the law that was decided first and functions to set precedent or serve as a guide for cases that have similar issues to follow. However, finding it can prove to be a challenge. Primary laws are basically statutes that are passed by your state legislatures, congress on the federal level or written in a specific state or U.S. Constitution. Case law are decisions handed down by courts on both state and federal level that serve as persuasive authority for another jurisdiction to follow when deciding matters of their own. Cases can be found in reporters that are published according to state or regional jurisdictions. So, after the basics you will then need to move on to finding primary law. You will need to find what a statute says about a particular issue and how it is regulated. Sometimes jurisdiction warrants looking at both state and federal statutes. Statutes can be found in print in law libraries in state codes or the United States Code but more readily accessible electronically through legal databases such as Westlaw, Lexis/Nexis and Find law. Electronic resources make the process of legal research easier.
The third category of legal research sources are those of the special variety. In our current scenario, the client has a tax issue. The basic and the primary sources have been identified, but there are other items out there that can help if an issue is complex such as a tax issue. Administrative law is a special area of law that deals with agency rules and regulations. If a statute that is written by the state or federal government is vague or does not address the issue fully, the area of law is delegated to an administrative agency to handle. That regulation gives way to a body of rules that speak to an area of law such as tax law. There are regulatory agencies on the state and federal level, such as the Social Security Administration, the Department of Transportation and the Internal Revenue Service. These regulations can be researched in print and electronically in the Code of Regulations.
Now that you have a roadmap, you can proceed to conduct the research you need to write the brief. You secretly smile to yourself because you are now equipped to tackle the world of legal research.
Locating The Law (5th ed). (2011). Retrieved from http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/scall/locating/ch3.pdf.
About the Author:
Necole Floyd-Turner is an adjunct instructor in Legal Studies at Kaplan University. She graduated with a Juris Doctor from the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery, Alabama and has over 12 years legal research and writing experience.