[This document is part of a series focused on core litigation skills. Bloomberg Law subscribers can access the full Core Litigation Skills Toolkit with practical guidance on key aspects of litigation practice. Not a subscriber? Request a demo.]
Receiving an assignment can be challenging, especially if you aren’t familiar with the client’s case and/or the area of the law. Consider the following before going into a meeting to get a research assignment.
Think ahead, come prepared
Think ahead about questions to ask to make sure you fully understand the assignment. If it is not provided, always ask about background case information, logistical issues such as the deadline, the client/matter number, and billing instructions.
Take a lot of notes
Be ready to take a lot of notes when receiving the assignment and don’t assume you will remember it all later when you start the assignment. Make sure you know whom to contact if you have questions or need your memory refreshed.
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Do you understand what is being asked of you?
Confirm your understanding of the question being asked. When the assigning attorney is finished with their initial explanation of the assignment, repeat back to them what they want you to research.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Understand the context
If the assignor doesn’t tell you, ask why they need to know the answer to the research question. Where does it fit into the overall case? What is the best answer for the client? Is there a second-best answer? What if you find the opposite of what they want you to find? These pieces of information can be important in knowing what strands of the research are more relevant, help you know when to stop researching, and make you a more efficient researcher.
What are the key facts of the case?
Knowing the key facts will enable you to keep an eye out for case law that is factually analogous to yours. There may be an existing document or filing that lays out the facts in more detail. If so, that document should be your first stop when you have questions.
What is the jurisdiction?
Be sure to pinpoint the relevant jurisdiction. If it is a pending case, the court where it is pending will tell you that. Also be sure to get the docket number from the assignor. If the research question is for a case that is not yet filed, be sure to ask where the case would be filed. If there is a choice of where to file, determine whether the assignor wants information to compare jurisdictions.
Confirm the final work product
What final product does the assignor want from you? A formal memo for the client? A memo for the file? An email that pinpoints the relevant cases? An oral summary? This is very important, especially for time management.
How will the research be used?
Is the research to be used for a pending motion? If you are helping with a motion for summary judgment, for example, your goal is to find cases that are in the same procedural posture as yours and come out favorably for your side (i.e., if your client is the one filing the motion, try to find cases where a motion for summary judgment was granted, not denied). Keep in mind the burden of proof for different kinds of motions.
How much time?
Ask for an estimate of how much time/money the assignor expects this to take or is willing to initially authorize. Keep track of the estimate, and as soon as it looks like it might be insufficient, check back in with the assignor for more instructions. Do they want you to go past the estimate? Stop with what you know now? Modify to a narrower track?
How does the assignor like to be contacted?
Ask for the best times and method (email, phone call, office visit, etc.) to reach the assignor if you need clarification or have follow-up questions. Knowing how and when your assignor should be contacted is core to building and maintaining a positive and successful working relationship.