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Legal Research Skills

How to approach your legal assignment

Legal assignments, in general, have three major types:

  1. tasks based on cases (summary, commentary or both)
  2. advice on possible solutions to a legal problem, eg legal memos
  3. research essays

These three types have distinctive legal features, even a legal research essay.

Make sure you know which of these types you're being asked to use.  Note that assignments can be called many things: a 'memo' could involve solving disputes between parties (ie type 2), or giving policy advice to the attorney-general (ie type 3).

Although an essay will generally have an apparently generous word limit (up to 5,000 words), the complexity of the task will demand that you write very economically.

  • Use a very direct approach
  • Avoid giving too much background information
  • Focus on writing analytically rather than descriptively
  • Use footnotes professionally
  • Phrase your ideas precisely, concisely and correctly.

The major law assignment styles are aimed at improving your analytical skills, your ability to apply legal principles and theory, and to write simply and concisely.

Some ask you to look at 'the law in action' such as how regulations are used in a particular setting, such as a construction site, and how legal procedures work.  You may have to advise a client directly, in a letter of advice, or advise a colleague on rules of law and their application in relation to a client's query.

Others ask you to critique the law, usually following an important judgment, or a proposed legislative change.

Understanding terminology in legal writing

Many different terms and directive words can be used in legal assessment.  This list helps to clarify those directive words and their meaning. 

Practice your skills

Writing and referencing activity

Step 1Starting with the first document, read it over and mark what you see as incorrect writing style and citation, according to the Australian Guide to Legal Citation ('Guide'). You will find that Chapter 1 of the Guide is very helpful in understanding placement of footnotes and the correct format when writing foreign phrases, dates, quoting, using abbreviations, and other style features that are common to all legal writing.    The further chapters help you to cite particular types of sources such as cases, legislation and more.

Step 2When you have done the activity yourself, you can look at the next document that shows where the mistakes are and what section of the Guide to look at for clarification.

Step 3Finally, there is a correct version of the document, as it should look.

Remember, this document is a small sample worksheet for this learning exercise. It does not refer to a particular legal situation and the cases cited are not related to this document.

Writing Skills

Writing successful Letters

Writing that clicks - Five little words you need to know for better letter writing

Some tips from the LIV Young Lawyers.

Writing successful Essays

Successful essay writing takes time and requires specific skills.

Answering Problem Questions in Law - Prezi from University of Bristol law lecturer, Steven Vaughan.

Plain Language Checklist - Don't get too caught up in legal jargon. Take a look at the tips in this Plain Language Checklist from the Centre for Plain Language (U.S.)

Writing in plain English - Practical common sense suggestions about improving your legal writing style

Tips for studying law

The Art of reading Cases

Learning to read cases is a special skill.  Here a few tips that combined with practice will improve your case reading skills.

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