legal research

In this article, Shrey Chakraborty of Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad put forth Steps for effective Legal Research.


This article deals with the stages of development of every legal research, its preparation, commonly faced constraints and when to stop a legal research. Most importantly, this article addresses the ways in which a legal research can be effectively conducted.

A Legal Research is generally defined as the process of determining a legal question. As per the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, research is,

“a careful study of a subject, especially to find or discover new facts about it.”

The very objective of research which is ‘legal’ in nature is to find an authority that will aid the legal problem in question.[1] Thus, every research is driven by a question or a problem which gives rise to the need of researching on this problem. It is this same problem that determines the mode of conducting the research.[2]

Steps for conducting effective legal research

  1. Identifying the legal proposition for conducting research upon.
  2. Solving of Research Problem:
    1. Taking the help of primary resources (statutes) and secondary materials (commentaries, case laws, research paper and more)
  3. Checking the authorities of the resources. For example making sure that any cited judgment is not overruled.
  4. Analysis of resources collected.

It is these stages which makes a legal research, or any research for that matter, effective. The most important stage in this is the identification and formulation of a research problem which drives the entire research and molds it into a comprehensive form.

Legal research, just like any other research, origins with a research problem. As mentioned above, it is this same research problem, which would later be determining the methodology of the legal research. Thus, a research problem to any legal research is very essential and imperative. Without this, a legal research will always be incomplete and purposeless.

While trying to seek a befitting research question, we begin from a point of not knowing or by the drive of wanting to know more. This research question must be very basic, open-ended and straight-forward. As correctly remarked by Frances K. Stage & Karen Manning[3], “the research question as the foundation of the study, defines the research paradigm that forms the assumption of the study, identifies the literature from which the research emerges and to which it contributes, defines the methodology utilized and suggests techniques to be employed throughout the research.”

The next step is solving of the found Research Problem. This stage commences with the identification of methodology. The methodology refers to the procedure through which a researcher intends to gather information (primary and secondary), for the purpose of answering the research question.

It is suggested to the researchers to develop a research proposal which would clarify the research work which is to be undertaken. This is also known as developing a hypothesis. A hypothesis shapes the legal research effectively and ensures that the researcher doesn’t get lost in the endeavor of finding answer to the research problem. Thus, a hypothesis provides a roadmap as to where the researcher should look into for carrying on his further research.

The process of collection of data can be done in 2 major ways i.e. Quantitative Research[4] (Doctrinal) and Qualitative Research[5] (Non-Doctrinal). For a researcher to determine as to which one of the modes of research he should conduct for the collection of data, there are certain factors which must be considered. These factors are:

  • What kind of information do you intend to collect or use for your research?
  • What do you intend to do with the information collected?
  • What kind of results do you plan to get?
  • What do you intend to do with the results?

Upon finding answers to these questions deftly, a researcher will be able to proceed with the collection of data in the most efficient and effective manner. By adhering to these legal research processes, the researcher benefits in the following ways:

  • Legal writing becomes highly organized and structured.
  • Saves a lot of time as it avoids the repetition of work.
  • Helps in capturing newer ideas which the researcher may come across in the process of analysis and interpretation of data.
  • Aids in encountering a writer’s block by providing a stepped approach.

Effective Steps for conducting legal research

Apart from adhering to a structured and stepped approach, there are also certain other ways in which a researcher can be effective while conducting a legal research. It is important to note that there exists no exhaustive list that could be used for the purpose of conducting a legal research effectively. However, these certain other ways or steps[6] can also be used by a researcher in which a researcher can attempt at conducting an effective legal research.

  1. Firstly, the researcher should have the know-hows to use a legal research platform. With the advent of technology, the growth and efficiency of online legal databases have mushroomed a lot. Gone are the days, when the advocates would only rely on libraries to get hold of precedents. With the click of mouse, one can get a thousand page judgement skimmed and printed at comfort of home. Thus, it is very important for a researcher to be well-equipped with the available online legal databases. This requires knowledge and a good grasp over the methodologies to search. While some require some certain specific search terms, the other may not. For obtaining the data effectively, it is imperative for a researcher to narrow the search using the search terms.
  2. Secondly, be clear on what results to expect during the process of collection of data. Albeit, it is not possible to anticipate all the results while collecting the data but the researcher must have some idea as to how the results could show up. In doing so, the researcher will end up sorting out the relevant results. This consequentially saves a lot of time for the researcher, making the research effective.
  3. Thirdly, the researcher must be organized. It is essential that in the process of collection of data, whatever relevant data the researcher is able to get his hands on, must be used in an organized manner. The data must be incorporated in the legal research that it would appear to fall into places. If prima facie, the data seems abstract, then it means that the data has to be well organized.
  4. Fourthly, the researcher has to be selective. In the endeavor of collection of data for legal research, a researcher is most likely to come across a plethora of sources. It is up to the researcher to sort the data that s/he wishes to incorporate. However, s/he must pick the data whose authorities are most relevant and reliable to the said legal research. For this purpose, the researcher should pose questions like:
  5. What will this case bring to my argument?
  6. How well does it support the proposition you are trying to make?
  7. Lastly, the research ought not to be rushed. For this, the researcher should plan his or her research. In doing so, the researcher ends up with a time span which s/he has allotted for the completion of each chapter in the research. Often, it happens that the researcher faces roadblocks which consequentially exceeds the time limit which was set for each chapter. Given this risk, it becomes all the more necessary to plan the research beforehand and then move ahead with it.

When to stop researching? Focusing your legal proposition.

There may be circumstances when a researcher would have to put a halt to the research. Such a situation could arise in two situations. First[7] is when the researcher is not able to find anything. Second[8] is when the researcher has several findings.
When the researcher has ended up in a situation of nothingness and isn’t able to get hold of any relevant finding, the researcher should resort to following steps to effectively overcome such situations:

  1. Look into another source of law.
  2. Reconsider the issue.
  3. Reconsider the legal theory which has been proposed.
  4. In the second instance, a researcher should stop in the following situations:
  5. When the researcher has found the answer.
  6. When the researcher has found several authorities.
  7. When there is a dearth of time.

A skillful must always look at these aspects and should be well aware as to when the research should be given a halt. This, in turn, saves a lot of time, making the legal research effective. The most important element or the key of conducting an effective legal research is patience. For a researcher to be able to conduct the legal research most effectively, it is imperative to be patient. For example, there may be times when the entire collection of data may seem fruitless and the researcher is not able to find a specific answer or a niche point. At such times, the true test of every researcher comes into play. When the researcher is finally able to find the answer to the research problem, it feels like finding a gem or a needle in the haystack. Finally, you realize that it was all worth it and how patience truly is a virtue.


[1] Legal Research: an overview, Legal Information Institute (LII), Cornell University Law School.

[2] Introduction to Legal Research, Dr. Sope Williams-Elegbe and Edefe Ojomo, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and University of Lagos, Nigeria.

[3] Research in the College Context: Approaches and Methods, Frances K. Stage & Karen Manning (2003 Brunner-Routledge, New York) 8.

[4] ‘Qualitative Legal Research’  by Ian Dobinson and Francis Johns, Michael McConville and Wing Hong Chui, eds, Research Methods for Law (2007 Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh) 18-19.

[5] ‘Qualitative Legal Research’ by Ian Dobinson and Francis Johns, Michael McConville and Wing Hong Chui, eds, Research Methods for Law (2007 Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh) 19.

[6] The Seven Steps For Effective Legal Research, Melanie Davidson dated: 21st January, 2015. Available at:

[7] The research process for effective legal research, Chapter 12 Page 143-144. Available at:

[8] Ibid.

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