Skip to Main Content

Directed Research Projects

Introduction to the Research Process

Research is a cyclical and iterative process. The steps set out below provide a guideline for the general flow of the research process, but don't be afraid to jump around or repeat steps!


I. Research Plan

  • Remember to always start by creating a research plan (See Preparing to Research in this guide).
  • A research plan will help you determine starting points and guidelines for your search (e.g. topics, timeframes, jurisdiction, etc.).
  • This is a starting point, but you should also regularly revisit and revise your research plan throughout your research process.

II. Secondary Sources

  • Secondary sources are materials about the law, such as law review articles, treatises, and practice guides.
  • Secondary sources describe the law in plain language and provide history, context, and background information.

III. Legal Primary Sources

  • Legal primary source are materials that constitute law, such as statutes, cases, and regulations. 
  • Even if a secondary source seems to have clearly provided an answer, it's always best practice to check the original language of the primary source to be sure. 

IV. Interdisciplinary Research 

  • Consider your research plan and see if your topic implicates subjects outside of law.
  • Different specialized databases and resources may be available for particular subjects.

V. Review, Check, and Repeat

  • At various points in your research process, remember to pause and review the information you've gathered so far and review your research plan.
  • Does the information you've found:
    • Appear reliable? (See Checking your Sources in this guide)
    • Tell a consistent story?
    • Answer the questions you've posed in your research plan?
    • Require following up?
  • Does your research plan:
    • Still have research paths that you need to explore?
    • Require additions, corrections, or reframing?

VI. Finishing Your Research

  • Because research is cyclical and iterative it can be difficult to determine when to stop.
  • Consider:
    • Have you largely answered the questions posed in your research plan?
    • Have you explore multiple types of secondary and primary sources?
    • Are you seeing the same information and sources pop up over and over again?
  • If you've answered "Yes" to all these questions, you've likely found the universe of information available on this subject!


Secondary Sources

Secondary sources help answer common questions, give context, and provide historical information about the law. Reviewing the citations of secondary sources is also a great way to find more information, including primary sources.

Common secondary sources for legal research include:

  • Restatements and treatises
    • Detailed, often multi-volume, works providing in-depth analysis of legal topics.
    • Restatements, in particular, are highly authoritative
    • They can be found in print (Searchworks), or online on Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg 
  • Journal articles
    • Articles written legal scholars and practitioners
    • Good source for very specific or niche topics.
    • They can be found in print (Searchworks Articles+), or online on HeinOnline, Lexis, Westlaw, or Bloomberg
  • Practice guides
    • Books and other resources aimed at providing advice and guidance for lawyers in practice
    • Often includes tips, checklists, and toolkits for usage
    • They can be found in print (Searchworks), or online on Westlaw (under Practical Law), Lexis (under Practical Guidance), or Bloomberg.

Tips for finding secondary sources:

  • Review your research plan and look for the subjects identified. When you click into the "Secondary Sources" section of legal databases, they will commonly include a breakdown by content type and jurisdiction and highlight some of the major resources in that area. 
  • Look for research guides on your topic; many law schools and law libraries will create specialized guides. An easy way is to Google: [topic] "research guide" (e.g. environmental law "research guide")
  • If you have a starting resource already (e.g. law review article, casebook chapter), review the sources cited within it. 

Legal Primary Sources

If your topic relates to statutory law, reading and understanding the statutory provisions is a helpful step to take before researching case law. Looking at the statute provides the exact language of law and the context in which it is written. Annotated versions of statutory codes are often available which can provide information about how to interpret the law, historical notes, and citations to relevant case law.  

Useful guides for conducting statutory research:

Interdisciplinary Research

If you need to conduct research outside of legal topics, various resources are available to assist with that: 

If you're unsure about the exact subject, try searching in a general, multidisciplinary database. You can choose one from this list of selected article databases available at Stanford through Searchworks.