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Legal Research for Beginners: Tips and Tricks

Welcome to legal research, the bane of every law student’s life. Legal research takes time. That’s an unfortunate fact. But fear not, my learned friend. This article will give you a sense of direction and purpose so you can nail those legal research assignments.

A) The Starting Point

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Know nothing about the topic? Start with secondary sources – so you know the leading cases, statutes and commentators in the area.

  • Use the encyclopaedias on both LexisNexis and Westlaw NZ. Why? Eachdatabase provides a different perspective on the same area of law and can direct you to different secondary sources.

  • Find the preeminent or prescribed textbook for that area. I once had to write legal opinion about competition law, despite knowing nothing about competition law. My solution was to find the prescribed textbook for competition law at my university.

  • Legal Seminar papers: If you're after a quick summary of a niche area of law, this is the place to go. Most seminar papers are to the point and easy to understand. The best place to find them is the law library.

B) Finding Everything

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Tips for cases:

  • Start searching for Supreme Court judgments and work down the hierarchy.

  • Secondary sources are amazing – they can direct you to the most important parts of the judgment, meaning you don’t have to read the case in full.

  • Reading headnotes can be a timesaver when distinguishing useful cases from useless ones, and are great for a quick summary of the case (beware headnotes are not comprehensive).

Tips for statutes:

  • Double check if it’s about to be repealed or if there’s a proposed Bill in Parliament which may change the law.

  • Make sure you’re also looking at the current law in force.

  • The Law Commission, government ministries, the NZ Law Society, law firms and community stakeholders often provide lots commentary on contentious statutes.

The Law Library

  • Start early: How do you get an advantage over 300 law students with the same assignment? Start the search early. Trust me. It will save a world of hassle, delay and stress if you get to the textbooks first.

  • Know how the library works: most rational law libraries organise all the materials relevant to one area of law in one place. Asking the librarian where it’s all stored can be a timesaver.

  • Relevant books are normally stacked together: From experience, libraries have awful search engines (although don’t discount it completely). Sometimes, you can find more texts by working out the call sign for an area of law and then physically looking through the shelf.

  • Use the index, contents page, and have a cut-off date (eg. not using texts before 2005) to find stuff quickly.

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The Internet

  • Use Google and Google Scholar: sometimes these work!

  • Law Firm publications: can provide easy to follow commentary, but these are written with their clients in mind.

  • Using Westlaw NZ: If you know the name of a useful case, there is a ‘Briefcase’ summary which links relevant journal articles, commentary and other cases. If you know of a specific provision in a statute and want to find out more eg. you want to know about s 30 of the Commerce Act 1986.

i) go to the ‘Legislation and Commentary’ tab (on the top left of the homepage). ii) type in the statute and provision: ‘Legislation (Title)’: “commerce act” ‘Legislation (Provision)’: “30” (do not type in ‘section 30’)

You’re likely to find more targeted commentary on the particular statutory provision (eg. in this case, Gault on Commercial Law) than if you use the ‘Free Text’ search bar.

  • Using LexisNexis: It’s easier to find related sources to a case or statute if you use the ‘general’ tab rather than using the search bars on the homepage. You can find most of the useful commentary on Lexis Nexis on the right-hand side of the home page.

  • Know how to input your search string properly on LexisNexis and Westlaw

  • Finding foreign cases & journals: It’s difficult to do a general search and hope to net foreign case law or secondary sources straightaway using either Thomson Reuters, Westlaw or Lexis. It’s easier to work out the most relevant foreign cases or journals from secondary sources, and using those databases to find the originals.

A special thank you to Luke Archer for teaching me the ropes of how to conduct legal research and his feedback on this article.

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