Home » How to Effectively Research and Apply Case Law in Trials

How to Effectively Research and Apply Case Law in Trials

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

When it comes to trial work, understanding and leveraging past judicial decisions enhances the credibility of legal arguments and guides the strategic direction of trial preparations. This article offers tips on research techniques and practical advice for applying these findings in the courtroom. We’ll also talk about how Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB)’s pioneering legal tools can transform your approach to legal research and trial strategy.

Understanding Case Law

Case law operates under the principle of stare decisis, a Latin term that means “to stand by things decided.” This doctrine ensures consistency and predictability in the legal system, as courts are generally bound to follow the rulings of previous decisions, particularly those made by higher courts. The interpretations and rulings of these higher courts become binding precedents, which lower courts must follow.

By appreciating the hierarchy and binding nature of past decisions, legal professionals can better navigate their research and apply these principles effectively in their cases. The relevance of a precedent depends largely on the hierarchy of the court that made the decision. For instance, decisions made by the Supreme Court are binding on all lower courts within the jurisdiction. Understanding this hierarchy is vital:

Supreme Court: Decisions have the highest binding authority nationwide.

Appellate Courts: Decisions are binding on lower courts within the same circuit or state system but are only persuasive elsewhere.

Trial Courts: Decisions generally do not create binding precedents but can be influential, especially if no higher court rulings exist on the issue.

It’s important to distinguish between binding precedents, which must be followed, and persuasive precedents, which can influence a court but are not mandatory. Persuasive precedents come from (1) courts in other jurisdictions, or (2) lower courts or equivalent courts where higher court precedent is not established.

Researching Case Law

Knowing how to search for relevant cases and use advanced legal research tools is critical for preparing strong legal arguments. This section covers the key aspects of researching case law, including practical tips for using digital tools like those offered by CEB.

Identifying Relevant Cases

Finding pertinent case law requires a strategic approach to research:

Narrowing Search Criteria: Focus on jurisdiction (state, federal), relevance to the legal issue, and the recency of decisions. Prioritize the most authoritative courts first, such as the United States Supreme Court for federal issues or the California Supreme Court for state matters.

Using Keywords and Legal Phrases: Develop a list of keywords and legal phrases specific to your case. Use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to refine your searches, making them more targeted and efficient. The applicable chapter in CEB practice guides is a great source for finding the right keywords and legal terms of art to improve the efficacy of your case law searches.

Using Legal Research Tools

Research tools range from traditional resources like law libraries to advanced digital databases:

Traditional Tools: Law books, like those offered by CEB, are treasure troves of legal volumes, reporters, and journals that provide historical and contemporary legal insights. They are particularly useful for in-depth research and understanding legal evolutions.

Digital Tools and Databases: Online legal research databases like CEB’s OnLaw Pro provide extensive case law records. These platforms often offer advanced search options that can help filter results by date, relevance, and jurisdiction.

Staying Updated with Legal Developments

Keeping abreast of new and evolving case law is crucial. Diligent trial lawyers subscribe to legal news feeds, blogs, and updates that report on recent judicial decisions and ongoing cases. It’s also a good idea to set up alerts in research databases to receive notifications about new decisions relevant to your practice area. This ensures you are always informed about the latest legal trends and case law developments.

Analyzing Case Law

Once relevant case law is identified, the next crucial step is to analyze these cases effectively to determine their applicability and potential impact on your legal argument. For example, understanding the structure of legal decisions and what to focus on can significantly influence your case preparation:

Identifying Holdings, Dicta, and Rationale: Focus on the holding, distinguishing it from dicta, or comments made by the judge that are not essential to the decision and are not binding. The rationale or reasoning provides the justification for the holding and is crucial for understanding how the law was applied.

Evaluating the Strength of a Precedent: Consider factors such as the court’s hierarchy, the recency of the decision, and whether the reasoning was broadly or narrowly construed. A strong precedent (1) comes from a higher court, (2) has recent applicability, and (3) is factually similar to your own case.

Efficiently organizing your research can improve accessibility and usability of information during trial preparation and in the courtroom:

Summarizing and Categorizing Findings: Create brief summaries of each relevant case, highlighting the court, year, key facts, legal issues, holding, and rationale. Categorize these summaries by legal issue or by how they support different aspects of your argument.

Using Software and Tools for Organization: Employ legal case management software or digital tools like CEB’s resources, which allow for tagging cases and creating notes. These tools can help keep your research organized and easily retrievable.

Integrating your research into legal arguments involves critical thinking and strategic planning:

Synthesizing Precedents: Combine insights from multiple cases to build a comprehensive argument that addresses potential counterarguments and supports your client’s position.

Preparing for Opposing Arguments: Anticipate how opposing counsel might use case law and prepare counterarguments. This includes finding distinguishing factors that might limit the applicability of a precedent to your case.

Applying Case Law in Trials

The culmination of diligent research and analysis of case law is its strategic application during the phases of a trial. 

Pre-Trial Strategies

Pre-trial preparation is critical for setting the stage for effective advocacy:

Integrating Case Law into Motions and Pleadings: Reference pertinent case law in your motions and pleadings to strengthen your legal position from the outset. This not only reinforces the legal basis of your claims but also signals to the opposing party and the court your thorough preparation and understanding of the legal landscape.

Preparing for Opposition Arguments: Based on your research, anticipate potential arguments from the opposing counsel. Prepare rebuttals by identifying weaknesses or distinctions in the case law they might rely on, and ready counter-precedents to undermine their position.

During the Trial

Effective application of case law continues into the courtroom, where it becomes a vital part of your oral arguments and interactions with the judge and jury:

Presenting Case Law to Support Arguments: When presenting your case, clearly articulate how previous rulings support your arguments. Use direct quotes from key cases to lend authority to your points and explain how these precedents directly relate to the facts of your case.

Refuting Case Law Presented by the Opposition: Be prepared to challenge the applicability of the opposing counsel’s cited cases. This can involve questioning the relevance, distinguishing the facts, or arguing that the legal context is different, thereby reducing the precedent’s weight.

Engaging Judges and Juries: Simplify complex legal precedents for the jury, focusing on storytelling that integrates case law in a way that supports your narrative. For judges, emphasize the binding nature of precedents and their direct applicability to the case at hand.

Adjusting Strategies Based on Judicial Feedback

Monitoring Judicial Reactions: Pay close attention to the judge’s reactions to case law presentations. Judges may provide direct or indirect feedback on the relevance and strength of your legal arguments, which can offer valuable insights for adjusting your strategy.

Adapting to Courtroom Dynamics: Be flexible and ready to shift your approach based on the effectiveness of your case law application. This may mean emphasizing different precedents or adjusting the emphasis of your arguments to better align with the judge’s or jury’s perspectives.

This active and strategic use of case law not only enhances your advocacy but also demonstrates your legal acumen and dedication to your client’s cause. The final aim is to ensure that your preparation and courtroom strategies are both rigorous and adaptable, leveraging the full power of precedent to achieve favorable results.

Partner with CEB to Bring Your Trial Research to the Next Level

CEB’s commitment to enhancing courtroom practice is evident in its range of online services, including:

CEB Practitioner: CEB’s Practitioner Tool is a comprehensive online resource tailored to the needs of 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 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.Maximize the effectiveness of your courtroom practice by integrating CEB’s innovative legal tools into your practice. Visit our website to explore these resources and begin transforming your approach to legal challenges. Empower yourself with the expertise and tools needed to excel in the dynamic world of law. Stay informed, stay prepared, and stay ahead with CEB.