May 30, 2024

Written By Mahault Dignet

The Non-Law Student's Guide to Legal Research Skills

May 30, 2024

Written By Mahault Dignet

The UK legal sector is known for its openness and diversity in terms of academic backgrounds, with firms often targeting non-law students when it comes to graduate recruitment. This is because these students are perceived as strong candidates because of the transferable skills and diverse insights they bring to the table.   Yet, embarking on a legal journey as a non-law student can be quite daunting and confusing, especially when it comes to legal skills. One of the most important is legal research. In this article, we’ll give you the complete guide to legal research skills as a non-law student.

Introduction to Legal Research Skills

Legal research skills are a key component of any lawyer’s arsenal. It is imperative for non-law students entering the legal profession to have a sense of how and what to look for when analysing cases, understanding legal principles, and undertaking practical tasks such as drafting legal documents.

Understanding the Fundamentals of Legal Research

Legal research is the process of finding, analysing, and interpreting legal sources to address legal issues or questions. It targets a variety of sources of law, which can be divided into primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources of law are legal norms issued by official authoritative bodies, namely case law (precedents) and legislation (statutes), issued by the courts and Parliament respectively. 

Secondary sources of law include legal textbooks, academic journals and commentary, and official reports or guidance; they are themselves a useful tool to efficiently research, identify and interpret primary legal materials relevant to a particular topic or field of law.

Developing Effective Research Strategies

Developing effective research strategies to navigate legal sources and locate relevant information is hugely important.

Various research techniques may be used, such as keyword searching, citation searching, and the use of Boolean operators to refine search queries. Let’s break each of these down further.

Keywords can be used in legal research to find specific information, such as laws, the name of legal doctrines, and academics. Make sure that the words used are straightforward, objective, and free of any unnecessary punctuation.

Citations are a series of letters and numbers linked to a legal source that allow for its identification. These citations are constructed in a (mostly) logical and straightforward way. We will talk more about these in the next paragraph.

Legal research can be conducted on various databases. Westlaw UK and LexisNexis are some of the most efficient databases, as they contain a very wide range of law journals and law reports, many of which cannot be easily found elsewhere. 

Boolean operators are simple words that link keywords together (AND, OR, NOT, AND NOT), and they may be used in this context to obtain more tailored results. These searches can also be refined by indicating any other relevant information that can be specified using advanced search features (especially when researching without a citation), such as dates.

Conducting Case Law Research

Case law research is the process of locating and analysing judicial decisions to understand legal precedents and judicial reasoning.

Case law can be easily found through case citations on online databases like Westlaw or LexisNexis. Decisions pre-2001 and post-2001 are constructed differently. In all citations from 2001 onwards, the name of the case is followed by the year of the decision, the court’s abbreviation, and followed by the case number. Pre-2001 citations contain the law report abbreviation and volume.

Examples of court abbreviations are “UKSC” for the United Kingdom Supreme Court and “EWCA” for the England and Wales court of appeal. The case date is either in square brackets or round brackets, depending on whether the year of the decision is required to find the law report containing the case.

When having found a case on an online database, it is useful to read the headnote, which summarises the relevant points of law in the decision and can be sufficient to identify its key legal principles. This rapid overview is better completed when reading the judgement and concurring and dissenting arguments of the justices.


Accessing and Interpreting Legislation

It is crucial to understand legislation and statutory law in legal research, especially in interpreting and applying laws and regulations.

Following the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, Acts of Parliament are the supreme legal authority in the UK. As such, they must be applied before any other legal source. Statutes are divided into titled parts and sections, which makes them relatively easy to navigate.

To better access and interpret legislation, it is helpful to use online legislative databases like, read legislative history, and identify relevant provisions through effective keyword searching. Westlaw and LexisNexis provide access to primary legislation and historical versions of Acts of Parliament.

Utilising Secondary Sources and Commentary

Secondary sources are materials that analyse and critique the law, such as legal textbooks, journals, and commentary. They provide context, analysis, and commentary on legal issues and developments.

Secondary sources are useful to deepen one’s understanding of the current state of the law, support legal arguments, and identify additional sources for further research. Among reputable journals for UK law are the Cambridge Law Journal or the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. They can be of use to locate primary authorities in a specific area of the law.

Ethical Considerations in Legal Research

Ethical considerations should always guide the process of legal research. Academic integrity, intellectual property rights, and professional standards, should be encouraged and respected at all times.

To avoid issues such as plagiarism, confidentiality breaches, and incorrect citation practices, make sure you follow standard ethical practices, such as seeking permission for use of copyrighted materials, protecting client confidentiality, and familiarising yourself with proper citation practices.


While legal research can be confusing at first for non-law students, this handy guide can help bring you up to speed. By remembering to use effective research strategies and adhere to ethical guidance, you can research like a pro!


Non-Law Students