Home » Navigating Case Law for New Trial Lawyers: Where to Start
case law attorney with tablet

Navigating Case Law for New Trial Lawyers: Where to Start

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Case law research is the backbone of legal practice for lawyers across the spectrum of their careers. It involves the meticulous study of judicial decisions to understand how courts have interpreted laws and applied them to various factual scenarios. For new trial lawyers, mastering case law research is crucial not only for developing persuasive legal arguments but also for providing competent representation to clients. This research forms the basis of legal strategy, guiding attorneys in predicting how courts might rule on similar issues.

For many new trial lawyers, delving into case law research presents a daunting challenge. The sheer volume of cases, combined with the complexity of legal issues and the nuances of judicial reasoning, can overwhelm even the most diligent of practitioners. This guide aims to demystify the process of case law research and identify how Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB) can help. From understanding the basics of legal research to utilizing advanced tools and strategies, this guide is designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills necessary to harness the power of case law in your legal practice. 

Understanding the Basics of Case Law Research

Case law, also known as judicial precedent or judge-made law, encompasses the body of law created by judicial decisions. Unlike statutory laws, which are legislated and written down, case law evolves through the outcomes of individual court cases. Case law not only interprets and applies statutes to specific situations but also fills gaps where statutes may be silent or ambiguous. Lawyers rely on precedents—prior judicial decisions on similar issues—as authoritative guidance to forecast how courts might rule on comparable matters. This reliance ensures consistency and predictability within the legal system, making understanding case law research indispensable for effective legal practice.

Key to navigating case law research is familiarity with common legal terminologies. “Precedent” refers to a court decision that is considered an authoritative example for future cases with similar facts or legal issues. Precedents can be binding or persuasive; binding precedents must be followed by lower courts within the same jurisdiction, whereas persuasive precedents may influence but are not obligatory. “Jurisdiction” denotes the authority of a court to hear and decide a case. It can refer to geographic territory or the type of cases a court has the power to adjudicate. Understanding jurisdiction is critical because a precedent’s relevance often depends on whether it comes from a court within the same jurisdiction as the case at hand.

The hierarchical structure of the court system significantly impacts case law relevance. In most jurisdictions, this structure is tiered, with lower courts (e.g., trial courts) at the base and higher courts (e.g., appellate courts, supreme courts) at the top. Higher courts review decisions made by lower courts, and their rulings set binding precedents for lower courts within the same jurisdiction. This hierarchy ensures that the interpretation and application of law remain consistent over time, with higher courts guiding the application of law through their decisions. 

Preparing for Case Law Research

The cornerstone of efficient case law research lies in the precise identification of relevant legal issues and the careful selection of keywords. These initial steps are critical because they define the scope of the research, preventing an aimless search through irrelevant material and focusing efforts on cases that genuinely inform and support the legal argument at hand.

To identify relevant legal issues, start with a thorough analysis of the client’s case, pinpointing the legal principles that underlie the facts. Once these issues are clearly defined, select keywords that are specific enough to narrow down the search results to relevant cases and broad enough to ensure no significant ruling is overlooked. Consider synonyms and related legal terms to expand your search scope.

Understanding the functionality of your legal research database search is crucial. Nowadays, most systems excel in processing natural language queries and searches employing Boolean terms and connectors. The more acquainted you are with the features of your chosen product, the greater control you’ll wield over the efficiency of your search queries.

Lastly, each client’s situation is unique, and understanding the specifics can guide you in filtering case law to find those precedents that are most analogous to your client’s circumstances. This tailored approach ensures that the research is directly relevant and can be persuasively applied to support the client’s case.

case law attorney with laptop

Strategies for Efficient Case Law Research

Efficient case law research is a cornerstone of legal practice, requiring adept use of digital tools and databases. Here are several tips on how to navigate case law research with a strategic approach using databases like CEB’s:

Start with Simple Keyword Searches

Initiate your research journey with straightforward keyword searches. These searches are the foundation of your exploration, helping you to assess the breadth of case law related to your query. Use exact phrases by enclosing them in quotations to refine your search further. Ensure these keywords resonate closely with your case’s legal issues, creating a focused starting point for deeper investigation.

Employ Advanced Search Techniques

Once you’ve explored initial search results, advance to more sophisticated techniques. This includes leveraging Boolean operators (such as AND, OR, NOT) strategically to refine your queries and focus on specific legal issues or cases. Additionally, consider filtering by date, jurisdiction, or topic for more precise results. Don’t forget to also incorporate natural language searches alongside Boolean queries, as recommended by our client, to ensure comprehensive and relevant outcomes.

Using Filters and Annotations

CEB offers various filters to streamline search results, such as jurisdiction, date range, and procedural posture. Leveraging these filters can significantly reduce the volume of irrelevant cases, spotlighting those with the most relevance and impact. 

Check the Validity and History of Case Law

Understanding the historical and legal standing of your cases is crucial. This process involves examining how cases have been treated in subsequent rulings, whether they’ve been upheld, overruled, or distinguished. It ensures the authorities you rely upon are current and authoritative. While CEB provides tools like TrueCite for tracking the treatment of cases, incorporating this step solidifies the foundation of your legal argumentation.

Analyzing and Applying Case Law

Once you’ve done some initial research, analyzing and applying case law are critical skills for any trial lawyer, requiring a nuanced understanding of court opinions and the strategic use of precedents in legal arguments. Leverage relevant case law to bolster your legal arguments by drawing parallels between the precedent and your case. Emphasize similarities in facts or legal issues, using the precedents to predict how the court might view your arguments. When dealing with persuasive authorities, argue for their relevance and applicability to your case, especially when binding precedents are scarce or less favorable.

Efficient organization of your research is crucial for quick reference during trial preparation or in court. Use digital tools or databases like CEB to categorize cases by legal issue, jurisdiction, or relevance. Annotating key points and creating a summary of each relevant case can save valuable time and ensure you have the necessary information at your fingertips.

case law attorney with papers

Staying Updated with Recent Case Law

Because the law is constantly evolving, once you’ve done initial research, be sure to stay abreast of recent case law developments. New judicial decisions can significantly impact how laws are interpreted and applied, affecting ongoing and future cases. As a trial lawyer, being informed about the latest precedents ensures that your legal strategies remain relevant and effective.

Subscribing to legal news websites and journals is a straightforward way to receive updates on recent rulings and legal trends. Many legal databases, including CEB, offer alert systems that notify users of new cases related to specific legal issues or jurisdictions. Joining legal associations or networks provides additional avenues for staying informed, as these often host seminars, webinars, and conferences discussing significant legal developments.

Incorporating these tools into daily practice not only enriches a lawyer’s legal expertise but also enhances the quality of advocacy by ensuring that arguments are grounded in the most current legal standards.

CEB’s commitment to legal education and excellence is evident in the breadth and depth of its offerings. Beyond CEB’s excellent collection of law books, CEB provides a range of online services designed to enhance legal practice, including:

CEB Practitioner:

CEB’s Practitioner Tool is a comprehensive online resource designed for trial lawyers. It offers a vast array of case law, statutes, and practical guides across various legal fields. This tool streamlines research, enhances legal practice efficiency, and provides up-to-date information, making it invaluable for lawyers seeking quick and reliable legal insights. All Practitioner resources are written by California lawyers, for California lawyers. 

OnLAW Pro:

CEB’s all-in-one legal research solution with authoritative practice guides, OnLAW Pro is written by California lawyers for California lawyers. All practice guides are fully integrated with CEB’s primary law research tool, allowing you to research California, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and U.S. Supreme Court case law, as well as California statutes and the California Constitution. OnLAW also comes with TrueCite®, CEB’s powerful case law citator. 

MCLE Solutions:

CEB’s MCLE solutions, including CLE Passport and CEB’s CLE Compliance Package, provide a robust platform for new trial lawyers seeking to fulfill their CLE requirements. These solutions offer a diverse range of courses, covering various legal topics and practice areas. Designed for convenience and flexibility, the programs are available online, allowing attorneys to access high-quality, accredited educational content anytime, anywhere. CEB’s MCLE Solutions are an ideal blend of practicality and expertise, ensuring legal professionals stay informed, compliant, and at the forefront of their field.

Sample Templates and Form:

With over 50 billion filings made, CEB’s Sample Templates & Forms offer a seamless solution for creating, printing, and storing these critical legal documents. Subscribers benefit from early access to the latest form updates, ensuring compliance and preventing filing rejections due to outdated forms.

Why Choose CEB?

Up-to-Date Information: With CEB, you’re guaranteed access to resources that are current, allowing you to navigate the legal system with confidence.

Expertise: CEB’s materials are prepared by leading legal experts, offering insights and perspectives that enrich your understanding and application of the law.

Comprehensive Resources: From detailed treatises to practice guides and form books, CEB provides a wide array of materials to support every aspect of trial practice.

Continuing Education: CEB’s seminars and online courses offer valuable opportunities for professional development, keeping you informed about the latest trends and strategies in your practice area.

Elevate your legal practice and ensure success in every case with CEB’s extensive range of products. Designed to meet the unique needs of trial lawyers, our tools offer unparalleled support in case law research, legal analysis, and staying updated with the latest judicial decisions. By choosing CEB, you gain access to a wealth of knowledge, enabling you to navigate complex legal landscapes with confidence and precision. Don’t let critical updates and strategic insights pass you by—join the esteemed community of attorneys who trust CEB to enhance their practice.