I recently started my ‘Practical Legal Research and Writing’ module on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and after weeks of covering the core modules based around substantive law, I was looking forward to changing tack and learning some skills. I am fast learning that skills are harder than they seem! This is mainly down to the prescriptive nature in which they have to be taught; after all, there has to be a way to examine us. While I am sure that things get a little more flexible in practice, I appreciate that being forced to stick to the basics will give us a better grounding when it comes to starting out training contracts.
Legal Research is perhaps the best example of this because by the end of a law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law, you are likely used to having to conduct research and may therefore be a little stuck in your ways. Being forced to take a step back and relearn is therefore not a bad thing, especially because the practical research needed in the LPC and in practice is very different to the academic research you will have done before. Out go the journal articles, and in come the practitioner texts.
The importance of this skill cannot be underrated, as research is a task commonly given to a trainee and - while you will hopefully be monitored and have your research checked - there will come a time when your research needs to be relied on, and it therefore needs to be right! With this now in mind, here are my tips for conducting sound research:
The structure of your research is key to you finding the right answer for your supervisor/client. It may be tempting to dive straight into reading cases or texts which you deem relevant, especially if you have some pre-existing knowledge on the area. But this could easily lead to you trying to answer the wrong question. It may seem time-consuming, but take the time to really think about the issues at play before writing the questions you need to be answered. Structuring your research goals as questions will keep you closely tied to the task at hand, and ensure that you find all the answers you need.
Research is often referred back to, so will need to be updated from time to time. It could also be that another person wishes to go back and research one of your points more deeply, so it needs to be clear where you have got your research from and how you got to that point. I like to think of research as though it were a complicated maths problem (by all means, if you hate maths feel free to view it in a different light). If you simply put the answer on the answer line, you would only get one mark, and none if you got it wrong. But if you also wrote down every step of your reasoning and calculations, you would give yourself a better chance at some marks even if your final calculation was wrong. The same is true with research. Writing down each step you took helps to provide a roadmap for any future users, including yourself, while also proving to any supervisors that you know what you’re doing.
Connectors are a tool I really benefitted from during conducting my research for my dissertation. Without being too technical, they are basically tricks to help point the search engine you are using in the right direction for your research. A commonly known one is putting quote marks around your query, so that the phrase as a whole is searched for instead of the individual component words. But what if there is a vital search result that simply expresses the phrase in a different way? Well, there’s a connector for that too! Annoyingly, different search engines can use different connectors, but here are a couple of helpful guides to Westlaw and LexisLibrary connectors, as these are probably the best legal search tools to be using (yes, Google is a no I’m afraid).
4. The final answer
No one is pretending that law is always definitive and that you will consequently always get a nice and simple answer to your queries. If it were, why would you be paid? But equally, simply saying ‘it depends’ won’t go down well with a client. To get around this, you need to tailor your advice to their situation, drawing on your commercial awareness skills to consider what is important to them and therefore what advice is most relevant. Thinking about client objectives at the outset of your research and throughout the process will help you in keeping the task as narrow as is reasonable. While academic research and practical research are the same in that you could go on forever, this isn’t going to help the client - so you need to focus on what is most important for them to know.
I hope that this blog post has helped enlighten you to the wonders of the Legal Research module on the LPC - good luck to anyone sitting their research exam soon!