Defining and Describing What We Do: Doctrinal Legal Research


  • Terry Hutchinson Queensland University of Technology
  • Nigel Duncan City University, London



The practitioner lawyer of the past had little need to reflect on process. The doctrinal research methodology developed intuitively within the common law — a research method at the core of practice. There was no need to justify or classify it within a broader research framework. Modern academic lawyers are facing a different situation. At a time when competition for limited research funds is becoming more intense, and in which interdisciplinary work is highly valued and non-lawyers are involved in the assessment of grant applications, lawyer-applicants who engage in doctrinal research need to be able to explain their methodology more clearly. Doctrinal scholars need to be more open and articulate about their methods. These methods may be different in different contexts. This paper examines the doctrinal method used in legal research and its place in recent research dialogue. Some commentators are of the view that the doctrinal method is simply scholarship rather than a separate research methodology. Richard Posner even suggests that law is ‘not a field with a distinct methodology, but an amalgam of applied logic, rhetoric, economics and familiarity with a specialized vocabulary and a particular body of texts, practices, and institutions ...’.1 Therefore, academic lawyers are beginning to realise that the doctrinal research methodology needs clarification for those outside the legal profession and that a discussion about the standing and place of doctrinal research compared to other methodologies is required.