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Getting into Legal Research for Paralegals

published February 14, 2013

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The ability to do effective legal research is like any other learned skill; it takes effort and hands-on practice to get good at it. Whether you do your research in the local law library, at an on-campus law school library, or inside your own firm, you need to have a plan before you begin. Without a clear idea of where to start, what to look for, where to look for it, and how to document what you've found, you may end up spinning your wheels and wasting valuable time.

Doing legal research can be daunting. Civil and criminal cases grow exponentially by the day, and law libraries are crammed to the ceiling with supplements explaining new rulings and new issues. While some paralegals relish the challenge of a good "case hunt," others equate legal research with doing time in a torture chamber.

Your own positive or negative feelings about research may stem from the nature of the formal training you received on the subject. If you were fortunate enough to learn from a skilled professional-in school, in a paralegal training program, or from a qualified colleague-consider yourself lucky. With the mounting number of cases filling our law libraries, the best time to learn legal research is now while you can still squeeze in through the file-stacked doorway.

If your skills are a bit lacking, or if you feel overwhelmed by the process, take steps to overcome your "researchophobia" before it interferes with your career development. The shortcomings that will hurt your advancement most are communication problems, either oral or written, and an inability to find information in a timely manner for a harried boss.

To give your research skills a dusting-off, start with some of the available books on the subject. Read up on the best way to browse effectively in a law library and then start practicing. Go on your own time to your local law library and ask for help from the people who work there. Your request for assistance is not new to them, so take advantage of their experience and ask for some guidance.

Many of the people who work in our law libraries are also paralegals, law students, and attorneys themselves. By striking up a friendship with a law library employee, you can gain entrance into a vast "hidden" world. Your friend in the law library can get you access to research help, "shepardizing" help, copy machines, computer database time, phone help, and similar benefits available to other paralegal colleagues.

Better still, if you have established a mentor relationship with a fellow paralegal or an attorney, ask your mentors for research help. If you show a willingness to learn and an appreciation of assistance, your mentors probably will be glad to show you the research tricks and shortcuts they've acquired over their legal careers.

If you work in a relatively small law office, you may not have much of a selection of law books to choose from. But even small offices will keep copies of the most important books for the practice- the state and federal codes.

These valuable tomes might be known under different names in your particular state, but they include:
  • The state Penal Code-Explains the elements, violations, sentences, and statutes regulating crime and punishment.
  • The state Vehicle Code-Explains the administrative, enabling, enforcement, and punishment statutes pertaining to motor vehicles,
  • The city Municipal Code-Covers various laws and infractions specific to the community.
  • The state Civil Code-Covers civil procedures.
  • The state Business and Professions Code-Gives rules and regulations governing fair business practices and procedures.
  • The state Welfare and Institutions-Covers state welfare issues, mental health concerns, juvenile protection, etc.
  • The state Health and Safety Code-Covers occupational safety rules, narcotics violations, and state safety issues,
  • The state Probate Code-Used to help determine will and pro bate cases.
  • The state Real Estate Code-Governs real estate transactions with rules, regulations, and guidelines
  • The state Tax Code-Covers the state tax system for collection and enforcement of tax revenues and the associated laws.
  • The U.S. Tax Code-The federal code that governs the collection of taxes by the IRS
  • The U.S. Title Code-A wide-sweeping document that governs many legislative actions for the entire U.S. government, including civil rights, law enforcement, and employment rights
As with legal research issues, if you aren't comfortable with these books, get busy. Even if they don't all pertain to the type of law practiced in your office, you should at least know enough about each to speak knowledgeably should the subject come up. You should know how each book is laid out, how to find information under the various headings, and most importantly, when each codebook applies and who uses it-judges, other attorneys, police officers, arbitrators, adjusters, executors, receivers, agents, etc.