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Essential Legal Research Skills

Pupillage Application Specialists

Legal research spans daily, mundane research through to academic work. Here, we’ve broken down some of the core skills that you will need – and that you’ll need to be able to demonstrate in an interview.

Understanding the Scope of Your Research

Before diving into legal databases, textbooks, or academic journals, it’s crucial to define the scope of your research. Without a focused topic, you could find yourself overwhelmed by the volume of information available. Begin by understanding the context of the research—whether it’s for academic purposes, case preparation, or policy analysis. This will help you narrow down your resources and save time in the long run.

Use preparatory tools like research outlines or mind maps to identify the primary questions you aim to answer. These tools can help you break down complex issues into manageable segments, making it easier to target your research effectively. After mapping out the scope, consult with peers or mentors to ensure that you are on the right track. They can provide invaluable insights that can refine your focus and suggest relevant resources you may have overlooked.

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Identifying Credible and Relevant Sources

The legal field is saturated with a multitude of resources, but not all are created equal. Distinguishing between credible and less reliable sources is an essential skill. Official resources like governmental publications, case law databases, and articles from peer-reviewed journals generally offer the most trustworthy information. Secondary sources like textbooks, commentaries, and academic articles can also be reliable but should be cross-referenced for accuracy.

To streamline your search, use specialised legal search engines or databases such as Westlaw, LexisNexis, or the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII). These platforms filter information to present the most relevant and reliable resources, saving you the laborious task of sifting through endless pages of search results. Learn how to use advanced search features, such as Boolean operators (“AND,” “OR,” “NOT”) and specific filters for jurisdiction, date, or court, to yield more targeted results.

Mastering Case Law Research

In daily practice as a barrister, you’ll often find yourself delving into extensive case law. Knowing how to conduct this specialised form of legal research efficiently is critical. Familiarise yourself with databases that provide annotated case summaries, headnotes, and citations. This helps in understanding the precedent set by previous rulings and how they apply to your case. Reading headnotes can quickly provide the gist of a case and help you decide whether to read the entire judgement.

Learn to track judicial history and treatment of a case using citators like KeyCite on Westlaw or Shepard’s on LexisNexis. These tools indicate how a case has been cited in later decisions, offering insights into its persuasiveness and validity in current legal contexts. Look out for flags or symbols that denote the status of a case—whether it has been overruled, distinguished, or followed—so that you can assess its weight in your argument.

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Using Statutes and Legislation

Barristers frequently refer to statutes, regulations, and legislative materials to construct arguments. Knowing how to navigate these complex texts is essential. Most legal databases provide options to browse legislation by year, jurisdiction, or topic, facilitating quicker access to relevant documents. Once you’ve found the applicable statutes, read them alongside their accompanying annotations, if available. Annotations often include valuable commentary, cross-references to case law, and a history of any amendments, providing a fuller understanding of how a statute operates in practice.

Additionally, familiarise yourself with the hierarchy of legislation. Recognize that primary legislation (Acts of Parliament) takes precedence over secondary legislation (Regulations, Orders), and both must be read in the context of any relevant European or International law that might apply. Keep up to date with any legislative changes by subscribing to legal newsletters or using notification features on legal databases.

Leveraging Academic and Practitioner Insights

Finally, don’t underestimate the value of academic articles and practitioner commentaries. These not only deepen your understanding of a subject but also provide alternative viewpoints that can be invaluable in court. Use platforms like Google Scholar or specific legal journals that focus on your practice area to source these insights.

In essence, daily life as a barrister involves a multidimensional approach to legal research, encompassing case law, statutes, and scholarly insights. Mastering these areas not only fortifies your legal arguments but also sharpens your analytical skills, making you a more effective and informed advocate.

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