July 7, 2021 – Law school finals and graduation are over, and you begin your career as a young attorney filled with all the skills and knowledge from years of hard work and late nights.
Your supervising attorney welcomes you to your new job and gives you your first assignment: draft a complaint in a breach of contract case. You panic – this does not require perusing 19th-century appellate cases or finding the perfect secondary source that examines handwriting analysis in the Daubert-era.
Where do you turn? What do you need to include? How can you complete this seemingly simple project efficiently? How must you format the complaint?
These were all question I faced as a first-year associate trying to navigate the legal field.
Fortunately, I learned to rely on four sources to quickly narrow my search, make my work more efficient, and check all the procedural boxes.
Google is a phenomenally powerful tool that, when used carefully, can provide examples, legal blogs, secondary sources, firm websites, or other resources that can serve as starting points for your project.
For example, it may be difficult to find the precise terms for a legal search. A legal blog can serve as a translator of English into legalize and provide precise legal terms to use in your research.
Of course, Google is not the only search tool you should use. But it may be beneficial to start with a general Google search to narrow your legal search, thus making your research more efficient.
For example, a simple Google search of “Wisconsin Statutes Complaint” leads to Wis. Stat. section 802, which contains the general rules for pleadings, motions, and pretrial practice.
2) Statute Annotations
Do not overlook the annotations included in the Wisconsin statutes as vital resources. My first step in all legal research is to see if there is a statute discussing the issue. There usually is.
Once you have found the relevant statute, read the annotations below it. The annotated cases have clarified, defined, and applied the statute. These are your case illustrations when drafting your brief or memo. They also are the foundational cases that discuss the statute or legal issue.
As a bonus, the Wisconsin statutes have hyperlinks to the cases, which can be read in their entirety on Google Scholar. Although claims originating in common law may not have associated statutes (but aspects of those claims, like statutes of limitation, may have a related statute), the statutes and annotations are always a good place to start your research.
3) Wisconsin Jury Instructions
The Wisconsin jury instructions are an often-overlooked resource. A brief search of the jury instructions can provide an overview of the law on a topic and serve as a starting point for further research.
They are now located at no cost on Fastcase (free to State Bar members) and on the Wisconsin State Law Library website. They are simple summaries in plain English of the law on any topic that may be considered by a jury. Additionally, the comments below the jury instructions provide cites to primary legal sources that support the instruction.
Since jury instructions are reviewed and updated regularly, they should provide an accurate summation of the legal standards for a given topic.
For example, the jury instructions on contract formation state that “For a contract to be binding, three things must concur: first, the offer; second, the acceptance; and third, the consideration.”1 The jury instructions then provide more details of what constitutes a breach of contract (Wis. JI-Civil 3053) and gives definitions of various contractual requirements and the law on unique contractual circumstances.2
4) State Bar of Wisconsin Website: WisBar.org
Included among the myriad resources (Fastcase, anyone?) on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s website, WisBar.org are all the local rules for each circuit court.
It is critical to check these local rules when drafting any document that will be filed with the court. Page limits, formatting requirements, and other minutia will be contained in these rules. Submitting a properly formatted complaint or brief will make a good first impression with the court.
Tools for Your Success
Using these simple tools, your first research tasks should be easier. Remember also: you’re not alone. When you have a question (or questions), there's a resource to help you: the State Bar's Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory, which puts you in touch with lawyers willing to share their expertise.
Our profession is full of lawyers who had a first year of practice and survived. With hard work and patience, you will too.
Getting a Jump-Start: More Tips and Resources for New Lawyers
The transition to full-time practice entails a lot of learning for new lawyers. Here are the State Bar resources to help you get a jump-start. Log in to WisBar.org and:
learn about the State Bar as an organization;
explore WisBar.org for member services and benefits and other resources;
get acquainted with State Bar publications Wisconsin Lawyer™ magazine, InsideTrack™, WisBar News, Rotunda Report; CaseLaw Express; section and division blogs, and WisLawNOW;
find Wisconsin-specific treatises and practice guides, and CLE programs written and presented by Wisconsin legal experts, in the WisBar Marketplace;
see current job listings on the Careers page and the Classifieds section on WisBar.org;
follow the State Bar’s social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and your division and section social media pages;
make connections by getting involved in State Bar groups, such as committees, sections, divisions, State Bar leadership, and the Wisconsin law Foundation;
check out the State Bar Young Lawyers Division;
join your section and division elists;
gain experience via the State Bar’s pro bono programs;
sharpen your writing skills by contributing to a State Bar publication;
explore the State Bar’s mentorship program, Ready.Set.Practice and sharpen your leadership and networking skills with the State Bar’s G. Lane Ware Leadership Academy; and
join a local bar or specialty bar association.
Finally, you may find this InsideTrack article helpful: Legal Research: 5 Resources Every New Lawyer Should Know, InsideTrack, June 2, 2021.
1 See Wis. JI-Civil 3010.
2 See generally Wis. JI-Civil 3010-3084.