Home » Level Up Your Legal Research: Tips and Tricks for California Lawyers 

Level Up Your Legal Research: Tips and Tricks for California Lawyers 

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

It’s a task that’s been part of your workflow since your career began, but when was the last time you fine-tuned your approach to legal research? Whether you’re a recent graduate or a seasoned attorney, chances are there’s room for improvement. The quality of your legal research directly affects the arguments you craft, the counterarguments you anticipate and the solutions you pursue for your client, making it an essential part of your strategy. 

Simple but transformative, these tips and tricks are designed to elevate your skills and refresh your methods. And while we’ll use CEB’s resources as an example, these techniques apply to other legal databases. We’ll explore why secondary sources should (funnily enough) come first, how to get the most out of your search terms, how to use primary law and citators, and where to find the balance between free and paid resources.  

Put secondary sources first 

One of the most common mistakes lawyers make is jumping straight into primary law without first consulting practice guides, legal encyclopedias, treatises and law review articles. These secondary sources provide an essential primer on the legal issues you’ll be dealing with — and they’re worth reviewing regardless of your experience level.  

Let’s say you’re preparing to file an employment discrimination lawsuit. You might start by reviewing CEB’s California litigation practice and procedure guide chapter on filing a complaint to remind yourself of the requirements. Or, if you can draft a complaint in your sleep, perhaps you skip that step and zero in on the procedural requirements of a jurisdiction you’re less familiar with. Next, you could check out an employment law practice guide, focusing on the chapters covering discrimination claims.  

Leveraging secondary sources from the outset will help you in three ways: 

  1. Issue spotting: You’ll identify not only the common issues but also the corner cases — scenarios that are less frequent but still possible. This is crucial for both beginners and experienced researchers. 
  1. Streamline primary law research: You’ll notice critical cases and statutes in your research, providing a jumpstart for your primary law research. These references are usually seminal or highly relevant, saving time and effort. 
  1. Gather proper terminology: You’ll get familiar with the legal terms of art and phrases commonly used in the field. These will be useful when crafting your search terms for primary law research, so take note! 

With one small step at the beginning of your research, you’ll strengthen your foundational understanding of the legal landscape you’ll be operating in and make your subsequent primary law research more focused and efficient. 

Understand your tool’s search capabilities 

No two search engines are the same, which means your results will vary depending on different factors. The system you’re searching, the content it includes, the algorithms it relies on and the choices its engineers and product designers have made to determine relevancy ranking will all directly impact the results you see. So, it’s essential to understand the scope of your search engine as you search.  

 CEB’s team of California lawyers is an integral part of its search engine. They manually review all cases, use advanced technology to track updates to case law and statutes and ensure the utmost attention to detail and accuracy. 

Mix Boolean with natural language searches 

There are two ways to use search engines for legal research, and we recommend using them both in tandem. 

The first approach, Boolean search, dates back to the pre-Google age when researchers scoured computerized databases. This method allows users to combine keywords with operators such as AND, OR and NOT to produce more relevant results and filter out irrelevant information. 

There’s still a place for the Boolean method today, but natural language searches have become more prevalent as Google has forever changed how search engines work. The natural language approach allows you to write in complete sentences with more words and context clues, which can help the search engine deliver more relevant results. As natural language searches have become the norm, legal databases have adjusted their search engines accordingly. CEB’s database is designed to recognize legal terms and concepts within a query to produce highly relevant results. 

Boolean searches will give you: 

  • Precise control over search parameters. 
  • The ability to combine multiple concepts. 
  • Efficient exclusion of irrelevant results. 

For example: 

  • “employment discrimination” AND (harassment OR “hostile work environment”) AND “case law” 
  • “age discrimination” AND (“summary judgment” OR “motion to dismiss”) NOT “retaliation” 

Natural language searches will give you the following: 

  • A more intuitive, user-friendly experience. 
  • The ability to handle complex, conversational queries.  
  • Access to a broader range of results.  

For example: 

  • What are the key cases involving employment discrimination and hostile work environment? 
  • Typical court rulings on summary judgment motions in age discrimination cases without retaliation claims. 

Using Boolean searches alone will yield fewer results, so you’ll risk missing potentially relevant information. Your natural language search will catch other documents and resources that don’t strictly meet Boolean criteria and tend to bring up more relevant cases in the first few pages, even if the total number of results is enormous. 

Remember: Leverage the terms and phrases you find in secondary sources. These are often specific and can help you zero in on the most relevant primary law cases and statutes. 

Log your searches 

Keep a brief record of your searches to save yourself time and energy later in the process. This doesn’t mean painstakingly writing down every single search term you use and document you look up, but it should capture key search queries and notable findings.  

This running tab can become a helpful outline to refer back to and see if you’ve missed anything or identify gaps. It’s also ideal when using multiple sources to search, as you won’t otherwise have an overarching search history across all print, online, news and legal database platforms. Whether you prefer digital tools or traditional pen and paper, your future self will thank you next time you’re looking for that elusive piece of information. 

Get the most out of your citators 

Citators are indispensable tools for ensuring that your case law is reliable. They provide visual indicators that quickly inform you about the status of a case so you can quickly decipher whether it has been overruled, distinguished or remains good law. But not all attorneys use citators to their advantage, missing out on valuable insights and risking reliance on outdated or incorrect case law.  

To master your citator: 

  1. Understand the indicators: Different systems use different visual cues. Know what these indicators mean in your system. CEB’s TrueCite™ citator uses color-coded flags to gauge the status of each case and help you understand its subsequent history. 
  1. Use the filters: Most citators offer filters to narrow down your results. Filtering by published cases, specific causes of action or procedural posture can save you time and focus your research. 
  1. Don’t disregard flagged cases: Depending on the issue, these cases may still hold valuable insights or precedents relevant to your client’s situation. For example, if a case has a yellow caution flag indicating it’s been factually distinguished, it may still apply to your issue. You’ll never know if you don’t check! 

Use free resources wisely 

While paid resources will always provide the most comprehensive and specialized information, free resources such as Google, legal blogs and industry articles can still be of tremendous value when used effectively. See them as a complement, not a replacement, for paid resources by integrating them in the following ways: 

  1. Tracking new developments: Free resources are ideal for staying updated on new cases and emerging legal issues. Blogs and news articles can provide expert opinions and context that may not yet be available in traditional secondary sources. You can, for example, set up Google Alerts to notify you by email when a news outlet or blogger publishes on specific topics. 
  1. Considering the client’s perspective: It is crucial to understand your client’s industry and business motivations. Free resources can help you stay informed about industry trends and client concerns. Google Alerts are also helpful here.  
  1. Exploring niche topics: Free resources can provide preliminary information without incurring additional costs to meet a one-time need for specialized or rare issues. 

While Google Scholar is not ideal for in-depth legal research due to its lack of advanced filters and citation information, it can be helpful in preliminary searches. Regular Google searches are good for finding basic information, legal news and blog posts that provide a framework for more targeted research. 

Mastering legal research is a continuous journey, but the great thing about these tips and tricks is they’re accessible to attorneys of all experience levels. You can conduct more efficient and thorough research by starting with secondary sources, crafting effective search terms, understanding citators and primary law, and judiciously using free resources. And don’t forget that search log to help you manage and organize your findings. Happy researching! 

Find out how CEB can support your legal research needs by scheduling a demo — and check out these frequently asked questions