It doesn’t matter what type of summer legal job you have, at some point, you’ll probably be asked to perform legal research. Sure, you had a class about this, but it’s a bit different in the real world!
Some tips for setting off on the right foot:
- Make sure you understand the assignment. It’s very easy to think you’re clear on what you’re being asked to do when you’re sitting in your boss’s office. But, when you return to your own desk, take a second to ask yourself, “Do I really understand what she asked me to do?” As part of this process — if your task is finding case law — make sure you think about what kind of case you’re looking for. State court or federal court? What jurisdiction? (If you remember Civ Pro, you should recall that this issue might be trickier than it appears.)
- Clarify any areas of uncertainty. Before you set off down the rabbit hole, clarify any questions that came up when you reflected on the assignment. A simple email saying, “Just wanted to confirm that we’re interested in Wisconsin state cases, correct?” can save everyone on the team a lot of time and hassle.
- Be sure you understand the time frame. Hopefully your boss discussed the time frame for your assignment, but, frankly, a lot of lawyers aren’t competent managers so this might have been overlooked. You need to know how much time you have, so you can plan your approach. DO NOT blow the deadline. If you’re falling behind for any reason, make that known immediately. It’s much better to have warning that an assignment’s not going to be finished on time, versus just not getting it when it’s expected.
- Ask for help. No one expects you to know everything. Think strategically about where you can get help. Can you talk to the junior associate on the case? Is there a law librarian who can help with research? Would bouncing ideas off your officemate help? Is this something that the highly-trained Lexis and Westlaw research assistants might have good ideas on? Whatever you do, don’t just sit in your office feeling depressed and anxious. Reach out, and get creative. (Just keep in mind client confidentiality rules, before you start discussing things with someone outside your organization.)
- Do not assume someone is going to check your work! It’s easy to get caught up in the “I’m just a law student, they can’t really expect me to get the right answer” mode. Don’t kid yourself. If you’ve been given an assignment, it’s generally because someone needs an answer. You have to either get it right, or explain why you’re uncertain. I recall once getting a rush assignment (this was after my 1L year, so I really didn’t know much), turning it in, and getting a call from the assigning attorney. “How certain are you that this is right?” “Well, pretty sure, but I only had an hour. Why?” “We’re submitting the brief to the Court in twenty minutes, and no one has time to check it. Tell me now, is it right, or you’re not sure?” “It’s right.” “Okay, it’s going in.” (Before anyone freaks out about potential malpractice, they ended up cutting that whole section of the brief, but it was definitely a good wake up call to me!)
Each assignment will be different, but keeping these tips in mind can help you get started in a productive manner. Oh, and one more: Document what you did. If you end up not finding what you’re looking for, it’s very helpful to have a list of the tactics you tried, so your supervisor can evaluate if more research makes sense.
Best of luck, and let us know if you have any specific questions we can help with!
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You might also enjoy: How to Make a Good Impression at Your Summer Law Job.
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