Talk to the librarians on campus before your summer position begins.
Members of the Reference staff are glad to sit down and discuss what research may be like in the type of organization where you will work this summer. Each situation will be different, whether you are going to work for a government office, law firm (big or boutique), corporate law office, nonprofit or court. We can help identify research materials that may be useful for your particular area of focus, including specific jurisdictional resources.
When you get there, find out what resources are available or preferred.
· Does the organization have a library or have access to the local public law or bar library? (Even if there is no library on-site, there may be a library at the main headquarters.)
· Do they prefer you to use their subscription passwords instead of your school login?
· Do they have subscriptions for practice tools that you have not used in school?
· Ask the attorney(s) you will be working for whether their practice has particular “go to” resources.
If you have a formal orientation, these types of questions may be addressed then. If there is no formal orientation (and this is the case for most employers), your supervisor or another attorney may address this during your first or second week. If not, don't be shy - asking these questions during or outside of orientation shows you are conscientious researcher. Make sure to seek guidance on whether you can use your law school resources on the job - some firms do frown on that.
Billing for research tools?
In addition to learning what research tools you have access to, you will need to know whether your employer’s resources will be billed to clients. This is more the case in a firm setting, where billing research tools is still a frequent practice. As a heads-up, you may need to change the way you think about your research strategies as a result.
A word to the wise-if you are using billed research platforms, you should spend some time learning how the billing works. In a good number of large firms, the pricing structures are still somewhat complex, with usage billed by the search and types of documents accessed. It is better to spend your time learning how research will be billed than to spend your time explaining your research charges to a billing partner.
Sign up for training.
Some larger firms will include Bloomberg, Lexis, and Westlaw (“BWexis”) research strategy classes in their orientations. Even if you are well-versed at using these tools, you will benefit by attending these trainings. The vendors or librarians should address billing and identify ways to use these tools cost and time-effectively. Likewise, seeking out training would be worthwhile if you find that you need to use a tool not used at Scalia Law. In the long run, sitting in on training will usually pay off and it can also boost your credentials (you may list relevant training on your resume or mention it during a future job interview).
Before you dig in.
Make sure you understand the assignments you receive, completely, from the start. Seek clarification where needed, especially if any aspects are unclear. The assigning attorney may forget that you are a law student and not an associate, and gloss over the details that a first or second-year associate should know.
Also, when getting an assignment, ask whether the assigning attorney can offer any input on how to tackle the assignment, if it is not obvious. Depending on their knowledge of the project, they may provide useful insight. Some assignments are re-treads and you may receive input on what has been tried (unsuccessfully or successfully) already. See th e JUST ASK mnemonic at the end of this handout.
Don't forget to ask about timing. If it is not clear when the attorney would like you to complete the assignment, ask the question.
Before you start hitting the keys, take a minute or two to sketch out a research game plan. Consider the accessible tools – both online and in print. Read all the materials with which you have been provided and look for any good “starting points.” Do you have a good case, relevant statute or regulation that you can run through a citator, first? Start a research log/document/spreadsheet to make sure you cover all the bases – and to have available in case the assigning attorney inquires about resources used.
Ask a librarian for help at the start.
If the organization you will be working for has a library, its staff member(s) will be a good starting point for help with research strategy. They should be able to identify accessible resources. If your organization does not have a librarian, reach out to the GMU Law Library Reference Staff, at (703) 993-8076 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When working with any librarian, be prepared for general questions about the assignment, if some framing is needed. You will likely be asked about the timeframe for the research, too. Be realistic, so the librarian providing assistance can prioritize your project with others already in the queue. If you do not know the timeframe, do not presume it is urgent. ASAP means different things to different people and is not a clear enough answer for a project’s timeframe.
Researching in a new area of law or unfamiliar jurisdiction?
Look for a leg up with a library research guide. George Mason’s guides are available here. Not finding one that fits your project? Try searching the Web for the legal topic or jurisdiction and some variation of research or library. As an example, plug this search into your favorite search engine, Bankruptcy research guide site:.edu. The top results will be bankruptcy research guides from other law schools. They may help identify key resources, including those that are and are not available on West, Lexis or Bloomberg.
Starting with secondary sources can save time.
How many times have you heard this? … that’s because it is often true. A good secondary source will cite relevant primary law and may provide analysis that helps you get up to speed. A relevant treatise or practice guide helps with context and terminology (terms of art) for that practice area or jurisdiction. If there is not a treatise specifically addressing your issues, think of the larger area of law where these issues would be addressed and find the “go to” sources. If you cannot find a good secondary source for the area of law, consult Georgetown’s treatise finder, here.
Note: if you are using a billable firm account for Westlaw or Lexis, it helps to know whether the firm has an arrangement for a specific access point for secondary sources which is not billed – frequently called an E-Library (Lexis) or Non-Billable Zone (West). The same content may be accessible by two different routes, one billed and one not. If your firm has one of these plans, you should definitely learn the access points. (Especially if secondary sources are billed in the neighborhood of $40 - $50 per section.)
Staying on track.
For complex projects, it may be helpful to ask the assigning attorney if they would be available for periodic check-ins, if needed. While you are self-sufficient, checking in may help if you run into unanticipated questions or findings. It is better to meet to re-calibrate the project than get too far off course – especially if the project is labor-intensive or time-sensitive.
Spinning your wheels?
There will be emphasis put on the value of your time. Do not fritter it away by spending hours searching for materials on the Web because you do not want to use any billable research tools. “Testing the waters” by starting with a Google search can often help identify specific terminology or possibly relevant primary law. It is okay to go this route at the beginning of your research, but then go to trusted research platforms to move your research forward or verify what you found on the Web.
If you have spent 15 to 20 minutes and feel like you are no closer than when you started, ask for help. If your organization has a librarian, they will likely be able to help you get on track. Your request is not a bother, as they are there to help with all information needs. Understand that because they work for the entire office, your request may not receive immediate attention.
Again, you can also reach out to the GMU Law Library Reference Staff at (703) 993-8076 or email@example.com. Or, contact the tele-help numbers for West (800-REF-ATTY), Lexis (800-45 LEXIS), or Bloomberg (888.560.2529).
Interruptions will happen in the middle of your research. Leverage your search history.
Your search history for BWexis can expediently help you find your place, if something interrupts your research. If you are using billed research tools, accessing through the research history is typically a way to resume your search without incurring a new research charge. Note: navigating to a prior search result by this method is usually not billed, if done on the same day. Re-running a search from one or more days prior on West or Lexis will result in a new billable transaction in firms that bill their usage.
Research folders can be used to save good results lists for viewing and filtering later on BWexis. There may be access charges for viewing billable items in a folder, like secondary sources. It depends on the document. Any item that is billed to access will be billed the first time that it is opened, whether in a list of search results or if it has been foldered. Then, the document can be re-accessed for 1 year with no additional charges, if it has been saved to a folder. See the earlier note about learning what “clicks” are billable.
Get to know your new coworkers, both attorneys and staff.
There will be times when you receive help with your research from your fellow attorneys or summer interns. Quite likely, you may also get help from others on the staff, like a paralegal, secretary or librarian. It behooves you to foster good lines of communication with all your summer co-workers.
Dot the 'i's and cross the ‘t’s.
When you think you are done – make sure that your research is up-to-date. Make sure that any primary law cited is still good law. If using printed resources, check the dates of the last update / pocket part or supplement to see if further updating may be needed.
JUST ASK: Questions to ask when you get an assignment
JURISDICTION. Find out if you need to examine federal or state, court or administrative decisions, regulatory or legislative sources, or some combination.
USEFUL TIPS. The assigning attorney may know of experts in the field, recent publications, or internal documents that could help you. Try to get names of people, and copies or cites of documents.
SCOPE. How much information is the assigning attorney really looking for? Should your research be exhaustive, or just an overview?
TERMS OF ART. Ask the assigning attorney if any terms of art may be applicable for the research. Knowing the right terminology can save time, effort, and money.
ACRONYMS. Clarify the spelling and meaning of acronyms. Attorneys in specialized fields tend to throw these around without realizing they may be meaningless to those new to the field.
SOURCES. As an expert, the assigning attorney should know the "bibles" of research in the field. Ask for titles of key journals, looseleafs, treatises, and databases.
KEY COST CONSTRAINTS. Is the client a stickler on certain charges, such as Westlaw or Lexis? How many hours should you be billing on this project? Find out before you start spending.