Monday, July 14, 2014

When to Stop Researching

Many legal researchers struggle with the question: When can I stop researching?
graphic of traffic signal with question marks in red, yellow, and green circules

No one answer is appropriate for all situations. Consider:
  • Costs. If you're handling a case worth millions of dollars, it is worth spending extra time looking on the off chance that you'll find a crumb of information or an obscure precedent that will help. But if you're trying to collect $20,000 from an insurance carrier for a car accident, you need to keep your costs down.
  • Knowledge. If you've been practicing in an area for several years and feel familiar with the field, you can probably stop sooner than a summer associate who is just learning about it.
  • Time. If you're working on a tight deadline, you might need to stop researching before you feel you've covered everything thoroughly, in order to allow time to prepared your motion, memo, or other document.
  • Resources. No one has access to all the databases, books, or journals that might be useful. Your research will need to stop before you consult the resources you don't have.
Appellate lawyer Jay O'Keeffe offers these guidelines (Legal Research: How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?, De Novo: A Virginia Appellate Law Blog, July 11, 2014): 
  1. What kind of appeal are we handling? It takes more research to find authority for a case urging the court to develop the law rather than correct an error based on well-established law.
  2. Have we checked the obvious boxes? Has he (or his associate) followed a research process based on reliable secondary sources, plus keyword searches and citators.
  3. Am I bored yet? 
  4. Can I answer the tough questions?
  5. Can I explain it to my eight-year-old?
For more on when to stop (as well as the research process generally), see

Graphic: Mary Whisner

1 comment:

Jeff said...

The last point is especialy poignant. If you cant explain it to someone who knows nothing about the subject, then you don't realy know it yourself.