Creative Research for Advocacy:
Tips for Clinic Students and Others

Posted Feb. 5, 2009
Prepared by Mary Whisner for Gillian Dutton's Refugee and Immigrant Advocacy Clinic students.

Law students learn early to find cases, statutes, and regulations. But what do you do when you need to find medical studies or social work case studies? You've learned how to write memos and briefs, but how do you approach creating a brochure for people who aren't legally trained? This guide suggests some sources and techniques.

Who else might be working on this?

Suppose your agency wants to help a special group of clients -- say, immigrants with mental health problems or children who are the victims of human trafficking. One question you might ask is: are there any other legal organizations working on this? Another organization might have materials that will help you. And you can share your work with other groups. "is meant to be a virtual meeting place for people involved with providing pro se assistance or directing pro se and self help programs. Through the site, the members can access the over 2,000 materials in their virtual library, as well as take advantage of several groups or listservs, receive a monthly newsletter, and network with other professionals through their extensive roster, network calls, and webinars."

"Members include judges, clerks, court staff, legal aid advocates, bar association representatives, law school faculty, researchers, and others who work to increase access to justice." Membership is free, but you have to register. Access to some parts of the site is screened.


PSLawNet is a great resource. You might have used it as a job-hunting tool, but it can do much more than help you find a job ad.

Example: Search Organizations > Keyword: mental health and Practice Area: Immigration.  One of the hits gives a profile for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST). And that links to CAST's website. Clicking on "News & Resources" leads to The Child Trafficking Resource Project (CTRP). (Searching for mental health turned up a great resource on child trafficking: topics can overlap!)


  • Be flexible. Try more than one search.
  • Don't get mired down reading every page of every organization's website.
  • Do try contacting organizations that have projects similar to yours.


The ever-popular Google is popular for a reason. It can find wonderful material!

Example: Google search: immigrant "mental health". First hit is American Psychological Association's Public Policy Office, The Mental Health Needs of Immigrants. Another early hit is UCLA's Center for Mental Health in Schools' list of resources: TOPIC: Immigrant Students and Mental Health

Try different searches: e.g.,  immigrant "mental health" "cultural competency"

You can limit to a particular type of website -- e.g., trafficking

What other disciplines might be involved?

Think about what other professionals might be working with the groups your organization serves -- social workers, nurses, doctors, educators, psychologists. And then find out where they publish their studies, handbooks, etc. A great starting point is the UW Libraries Subject Guides.

Example: the Social Work page suggests using PsycInfo, an index of articles and reports in psychology and related disciplines. Searching for refugee and ptsd in keywords turns up hundreds of records, including this one:


Searching for refugee ptsd in PubMed, the standard medical database, retrieves many more, including:


When you work with a new database, it's generally safe to start off with a keywords search. As you go on, try out an advanced search option if it's available.

Look for a help screen that will tell you the search logic for this database. For instance, in LexisNexis and Westlaw, you're used to truncating a word with ! but in many databases you use another character. Your search for immigra! (to pick up "immigration," "immigrant," etc.) won't work if the database uses immigra* or immigra# or immigra?.  Some databases use different symbols for "and" and "or."

Look for descriptors (or subject headings) in a record you find that seems relevant and use those in another search. Or scan abstracts for new search terms to try.


How do you write for a general audience?

You know that writing that is effective for, say, a moot court competition will not work for your clients who are not legally trained. The challenge is even greater when the clients have limited proficiency in English.

Legal writing guides and general writing guides might help.

First, don't rule out legal writing guides. Sections on client letters might help. Even sections on briefs and memos can help, because good legal writing does not have long, complex sentences, choked with legalese, unnecessary jargon, and formulaic redundancies. If you improve your legal writing, you're very likely to improve your writing for general audiences as well.

Legal & General Writing Resources lists books in the Law Library and links to a variety of websites.

Look at some examples of good legal writing for nonlawyers.

WashingtonLawHelp is provided as a public service by the Northwest Justice Project in collaboration with other legal aid providers in the Alliance for Equal Justice and Washington courts. It has a wide collection of fact sheets and guides, prepared by a variety of organizations (e.g., the Attorney General's Office and the Northwest Women's Law Center) in addition to Northwest Justice Project and Columbia Legal Services. is rich website, from the leading publisher of self-help law books.

For books, see Books for Nonlawyers in the Gallagher Law Library or search the catalog with for popular works.

The National Center for State Courts even has two graphic novels on legal topics.

Read advice advice about how to write for nonlawyers.

Plain is a site created by federal employees from many agencies.

Limited English Proficiency: A Federal Interagency Website ( supports the federal government's programs to make materials available to all. Unfortunately for your purposes, it does not offer specific writing advice, and many of the documents are written in a bureaucratic style.

The Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales offers a lot of helpful material (some of its own and some by others), including:

Clarity is "an international association promoting plain legal language." The following articles from its journal are relevant to legal services projects in the U.S.:

Transcend is a company that provides translation, editing, and design services. It also has some very helpful checklists and documents:


Are there resources for working with clients from different countries?

Legal Services Corporation, Resources for Serving Clients with Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

Washington State Coalition for Language Access

EthnoMed "contains information about cultural beliefs, medical issues and other related issues pertinent to the health care of recent immigrants to Seattle or the US, many of whom are refugees fleeing war-torn parts of the world."


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