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Successful Summer Strategies: Research in the Real World: Tips for Assignments

Research in the Real World Starts Here. Use this guide to orient yourself to the world and research environment.

Receiving a Research Assignment

First of all, bring something on which to record notes.  A big complaint from attorneys is that summer associates do not record the information that they impart when giving assignments.

Second, don't be afraid to ask questions when receiving an assignment. Although you may be reluctant to reveal that you don’t know much about a topic, asking questions can save a huge amount of time later. Also, it may be difficult to track down a busy attorney when your questions arise, so try to obtain as much information as you can at the outset.  Among the important questions are:

  • What is the purpose of the assignment?     Do not automatically accept the sufficiency of the information that you’ve been given.  Try to anticipate questions to gather essential information and to clarify confusing instructions. Verbally summarize the assignment before you leave the room. "As I understand the assignment, I am going to ... Is that what you are looking for?"
  • What is the expected work product? Does the assigning attorney expect an oral report, a research log or other report (some firms and attorneys have forms for these), a written memo, or something else?
  • When is the assignment due? Is it more or less urgent than other assignments you may have been given? How much time is it reasonable to spend on this project?  Does the attorney expect you to check in periodically during the course of the project?
  • Get a jump start in your research.  Ask if there are sources of information that you should consult first, such as knowledgeable people in the office, a case or memorandum file on the firm's intranet, or key publications?  Are there terms of art or "buzz words" that are commonly used in the area of law?  What do any acronyms the assigning attorney uses stand for?

Preliminary Research Steps and Managing Workload

Expect some issues to arise in this respect. You may find yourself working on more than one assignment at a time or being pulled away from one project to work on another. You may be working for more than one attorney.

  • Try to set a research plan. Before jumping into a problem, try to organize your assignment’s fact pattern by: area of law, parties, actions, defenses, and jurisdiction. This will help you generate a controlled vocabulary and identify which databases to consult.  If you have no idea where to begin, consult with others (librarian, assigning attorney, etc.) or perform a review of secondary sources for background information and possible leads to primary sources. 
  • Be flexible. The demands on your time may vary from not being busy enough to being expected to pull some all-nighters. Within reason, do your best to go with the flow. If you have special personal events such as weddings (especially your own) coming up during the summer that require your absence from the office, make sure that you inform the employer in writing as soon as possible, preferably at the time you are hired.
  • Keep accurate records of your research. Record what sources you looked at, what index or search terms you used, and the date on which you performed the research. Make your notes as thorough and intelligible as you can so that when you return to an assignment, you don’t have to start from scratch because you can’t remember what you did or can’t read your notes.  These notes can also be useful when you hit research road blocks and need help.
  • Keep accurate time records. This is a way to show your professionalism and good practice for the future.
  • Know when to ask for help.  Don't hesitate to ask your assigning attorney(s) to prioritize assignments if you find yourself inundated with deadlines. You may not make the right decision as to priorities, and it’s better to request advice than to err in deciding what project is most important or to do a poor job because you’re trying to do an unrealistic amount of work. If you become frustrated in your search, consult with others within your firm and show them which resources you found.  As a summer associate, do not contact anyone outside the firm without explicit authorization and instructions.
  • If during your research you identify other legal issues that might impact your client, don’t hesitate to question whether you should include them in your memo.  ASK!  This goes back to making sure that you understand the assignment.
  • Learn when to stop.  When you find something directly on-point, double-check it against other resources and make sure that it is current. When you begin to see references to the same documents over and over again, you have probably concluded your research.

Presenting Research Results

Oral Reporting on a Research Project

  • Be prepared to give a succinct summary of your research, not a chronological description of every source you used.
  • It's a good idea to first present your conclusion and then explain the logical foundation based on the research you conducted.
  • Be prepared to be interrupted with questions and to vary the manner in which you planned to present your results according to the questions asked.

Written Reporting on a Research Project

  • Find out if the employer has a preferred format for office memoranda or other research reporting.
  • Look at writing samples if needed. Samples are available in commonly used legal writing texts such as Shapo, Writing and Analysis in the Law and Oates, The Legal Writing Handbook, among many others.
  • PROOFREAD. Then proofread again. Don’t rely on your word processing program’s spell and grammar checks. A document riddled with errors will make you appear careless and unprofessional.