Secondary Sources. Primary Sources. Update the law. Repeat.
These are the three basic steps to unraveling any research assignment that comes across your desk. But what do these steps mean? How can they simplify our legal research?
First, secondary sources. Assume, for the moment, that you've been handed a project concerning the trademark of an exclusive, organic cheese. Now, I don't know about you, but I have absolutely no idea what the law is on cheese or how it relates to trademarks. Because I am at a loss for even a place to start, I will begin my research with SECONDARY SOURCES such as encyclopedias, treatises, dictionaries, law review articles, etc. All of these resources provide various means of explaining cheese and trademark and how they work together. From these secondary sources, I will also find references to case law and statutes that deal with trademark and cheese.
Second, primary sources. Your primary sources are the law (so long as you're in the correct jurisdiction). The law comes from statutes and case law. You already have a few leads from your secondary source research, so that's a good place to start. From the cases you find or the statutes, you will find further references to other cases or laws that relate to the same topic. Within these resources, you will find all the information you need concerning cheese and trademarking it. Remember, once you keep finding the same cases and statutes in all of your research on various databases and in various sources, you know you've found all the relevant information.
Third, update the law. This is the MOST IMPORTANT step! If you don't update the law, you risk citing law that is no longer valid. You want to make sure that the cases or statutes that you are relying upon for your cheese trademark case are relevant and up-to-date and valid. To do so, you can check the pocket part in a print resource, or you can check the flags applied by the major databases, or you can check the history of a particular case or statute. Remember, with the flags on the major databases, just because there's a red flag does NOT mean that the case or statute is wholly invalid. The red flag may apply only to a specific jurisdiction or to a specific portion of the entire opinion.
If you rely upon these steps and follow them, you will be sure to find all the information you need to understand your case and defend your client.