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Guide for Research Assistants: Basics

Basic guide for research assistants, including information about the library services and resources.

Search Terms

  • Develop your research vocabulary (You will modify this as you research.)
  • Use keywords and terms of art from your research assignment
  • Use a legal dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, or treatises to identify alternative terms


  • Good place to start is a secondary source
  • Secondary sources discuss, analyze, explain, and provide an overview about the law; help to gain familiarity with terms of art and issues; lead to primary sources

One Good Case Method

  • Start with the "one good case."
  • Ask your professor.
  • Consult a secondary source. 
  • Work with annotated statute.
  • Use Shepard's (Lexis Advance) and KeyCite (Westlaw) to find citing references and table of authorities of your "one good case."
  • Use the West Key Number System. A relevant topic and key number from your "one good case" can be used to find other cases assigned the same topic and key number. 

Contact your professor's liaison librarian for help.

Treat Your Assignment Professionally

  • Take it seriously and be professional at all times.

Know the Basics

  • What, when, where, who, why, how

Know the Scope of Your Project

  • Make sure you understand the project. (What is it that you will be working on?)
  • What are your professor's expectations? (Make sure you both are clear on it)
  • If you don't understand, ask questions, repeat the explanation of the project back to the professor, or paraphrase it, but make sure you fully understand.
  • What are the deadlines for what parts of the project? (Set up a calendar)
  • Should you have regular meetings? If so, how often?
  • Are you expected to provide regular updates on your progress? If so, in what format and how often?
  • Don't be afraid to ask your professor to recommend a place to start. Sometimes your professor may suggest a book, article, case, author, or any other source for you to start with, which can save you a lot of time in the beginning.
  • How much time and effort are you expected to devote to this project?
  • How are you expected to present the results? What format does your professor prefer?


  • What is your professor's preferred way of communication? Settle on one to avoid miscommunication. 
  • Settle on a way to share information if you are working in a group.
  • How should you be sharing information with your professor? 

Articulate the Legal Question

  • This may keep changing as you move forward with your research.
  • Know the jurisdiction. (personal, geographical, subject matter)
  • Civil or criminal?
  • Public or private?
  • Substantive or procedural?
  • Who are the parties? (identify the type of entity)
  • What relief is being sought?

Plan Your Research

  • What sources will you need to consult?
    • Statutes, case law, regulations, or administrative decisions?
    • International Treaties, Agreements, Contracts, MOUs, Conventions, Declarations, or International Customary Law?
    • Secondary materials: journal articles, law reviews, encyclopedias, hornbooks, treatises, overviews, summaries, newspapers, or annotations? 
    • Will you need to use specialized databases?
    • Will you need to consult Internet resources?
    • Will you need to request materials from other libraries? (You may not know the answer to this question in the beginning of your project, but be aware that you may need to do so and it takes time.)
  • Is there a research guide including my topic that can help me to get started?
  • Did you ASK your professor to recommend a source or other starting point?

Keep Track of Your Work

  • Keep track of all you do
    • Research, search terms, search strings, results
    • All sources you have consulted (whether print or online)
    • Keep track of authors, titles, page numbers, volumes, and dates of publications
    • Figure out a way to manage your online research (keep track of dates you have visited sites and note all URLs)

In order to print for your professor, contact your professor or their assistant to obtain a printer code. Do not use your own printer account. 

Contact any of the reference librarians directly but your professor's liaison may be more familiar with the topics they are currently researching. 

Or, contact us via ASK US.

When you check out materials for your professor, check them out in their name, not yours. If you check it out in your own name, you are responsible if the professor fails to return it.