Deploying the database: 5 ways to make online legal research work for you

On Thursday 1 September 2016 the La Trobe Law School ran the fifth 101 Law Skills Workshop of 2016. Organised throughout the semester, these workshops aim to sharpen your legal and professional skills and provide you with some handy tips for your law school career.

1. Utilise the Law Expert Help Guide

Did you know that most online legal resources are already categorised for you via the Law Expert Help Guide? This guide makes it easy to find case law, journal articles and mooting resources, and provides key legal databases which can make finding a precedent or article for a law essay easy. Make sure to bookmark this page if you haven’t already done so!

2. Legal dictionaries, encyclopaedias and commentaries

Law is all about language. It can be difficult to figure out how best to start your research if you don’t have your head around the legal terms and concepts. Unfortunately, law textbooks can have a tendency to complicate things. So, starting with a legal dictionary or commentary is a great idea. A dictionary can help clarify the meaning of tricky legal words, and a commentary can give a broad overview about an area of law, will providing you with the details of primary legal sources – case law and legislation – to follow up in other legal databases. Remember to check you’re your source was last updated – most commentaries are updated regularly, so you should have access to the latest information.

3. Journal articles can clarify case law

When utilised effectively, journal articles are a great resource in your research process because they are written by subject specialists, practitioners and academics and help to synthesise the progression of an area of law. LexisNexis AU and Westlaw AU are two good sources to find journal articles written on a legal topic, especially when you are looking for commentary on a particular case. When searching for journal articles on a particular topic try using a database such as AGIS Plus Text (focus on the advanced search) which comprehensively indexes and abstracts articles from over 140 Australian, New Zealand and Pacific law journals.

4. Searching is an art form!

Boolean operators are fantastic research tools, to help you gather just the right set of search results. Remember to Use OR between search words to broaden your results and AND between search words to combine them and narrow your results. When searching, put quotation marks around two or more words to search as a phrase, e.g. “White Australia Policy”. You can also truncate words to pick up plurals or variants on a word. For example, austral* will search for Australia, Australian, Australians etc. Follow the footnotes or bibliography of highly useful articles or books, to trace past sources. And if you’re using Google Scholar, the “cited by” feature will take you forward in time, to see subsequent authors who have since cited the article.

5. Start your research early

The earlier you begin your research, the more time you have to acquire a broad range of sources and really hone in on what exactly the scope of your legal question is. Help is also always at hand for La Trobe Law Students: Kate Freedman and Clare O’Hanlon are the law school librarians/senior learning advisors and are available for consultations throughout the semester. You can make an appointment to see either of them via the library help desk. The Library also offers an Online Library Chat which is a useful tool if you are struggling with referencing or need a hand finding a particular source.

Good luck with your legal research and remember, keep calm and ask a librarian!


La Trobe