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George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Summer Intern & New Attorney Research Survival Guide

Tips for new attorneys to smooth their transition from researching as a law student to researching in a professional setting.

Plan Your Research

Before you dig in

Make sure you understand the assignments you receive, completely, from the start. Seek clarification where needed, especially if any aspects are unclear. The assigning attorney may forget that you are a law student and not an associate, and gloss over the details that a first or second year associate should know.

Also, when getting an assignment, ask whether the assigning attorney can offer any input on how to tackle the assignment, if it is not obvious. Depending on their knowledge of the project, they may provide useful insight. Some assignments are re-treads and you may receive input on what has been tried (unsuccessfully or successfully) already. (See the JUST ASK mnemonic explained in the next section.)

Before you start hitting the keys, take a minute or two to sketch out a research game plan. Consider the accessible tools – both online and in print. Read all the materials with which you have been provided and look for any good “starting points.” Do you have a good case, relevant statute or regulation that you can run through a citator, first? Start a research log/document/spreadsheet to make sure you cover all the bases – and to have available in case the assigning attorney inquires about resources used.

Questions to ask when you get an assignment

JURISDICTION. Find out if you need to examine federal or state, court or administrative decisions, regulatory or legislative sources, or some combination.

USEFUL TIPS. The assigning attorney may know of experts in the field, recent publications, or internal documents that could help you. Try to get names of people, and copies of or citations to documents.

SCOPE. How much information is the assigning attorney really looking for? Should your research be exhaustive, or just an overview?

TERMS OF ART. Ask the assigning attorney if any terms of art may be applicable for the research. Knowing the right terminology can save time, effort, and money.

ACRONYMS. Clarify the spelling and meaning of acronyms. Attorneys in specialized fields tend to throw these around without realizing they may be meaningless to those new to the field.

SOURCES. As an expert, the assigning attorney should know the "go to sources" of research in the field. Ask for titles of key journals, treatises, and databases.

KEY COST CONSTRAINTS. Is the client a stickler on certain charges, such as Westlaw or Lexis? How many hours should you be billing on this project? Find out before you start.

Ask a librarian for help at the start   

If the organization you will be working for has a library, its staff member(s) will be a good starting point for help with research strategy. They should be able to identify accessible resources. If your organization does not have a librarian, reach out to the GMU Law Library Reference Staff, at (703) 993-8076 or lawref@gmu.edu.

When working with any librarian, be prepared for general questions about the assignment, if some framing is needed. You will likely be asked about the timeframe for the research, too. Be realistic, so the librarian providing assistance can prioritize your project with others already in the queue. If you do not know the timeframe, do not presume it is urgent. ASAP means different things to different people and is not a clear enough answer for a project’s timeframe.

Researching in a new area of law or unfamiliar jurisdiction?

Look for a leg up with a library research guide. Library research guides may help you to identify key resources, including those that are and are not available on West, Lexis, or Bloomberg. George Mason’s guides are available here. Not finding one that fits your project? Try searching Google for the legal topic or jurisdiction and some variation of research or library guide. As an example, plug this search into your favorite search engine, Bankruptcy research guide site:.edu. The top results will be bankruptcy research guides from other law schools.