How to Perform Legal Research

You need to research a legal issue, but don't have three years to first spend in law school? Here are some tips to help you out with your research project.

Conducting Legal Research

The essential framework for performing legal research is the following:

  1. Identify Your Legal Issue - Although sometimes it's not difficult to determine what issues are involved in a matter or dispute, in other cases it may be difficult to identify the relevant legal issues. Most matters fall toward the simpler end of the spectrum, but even a matter that initially appears to be simple may turn out to involve unexpectedly complex legal issues.

  2. Identify the Proper Jurisdiction - You need to determine where your case will be litigated and what laws govern the legal matter. Procedural legal issues are normally going to be governed by the laws and rules for the court in which a case is filed. For most legal matters it's pretty obvious what jurisdiction's laws will apply to a matter or dispute, as the legal issue will have arisen in a specific state, but sometimes more than one state is involved or federal jurisdiction and legal issues are involved. When more than one jurisdiction's laws may apply to a case, it is necessary to research choice of law issues for the jurisdiction in which the case would be litigated, and whether that jurisdiction would apply its own laws or the laws of a different jurisdiction when resolving part or all of a dispute.

  3. Identify Sources of Legal Information - The specific sources you might use will vary based upon the legal matter you're researching. Although the list is not exhaustive, the following sources are frequently relied upon by lawyers and paralegals:

    • Statutes - Statutes are the laws as passed by legislatures.

    • Regulations - Although not as likely to be relevant unless a legal matter involves a government agency, the federal government and state agencies have created extensive bodies of regulatory rules that attempt to interpret certain laws and instruct government agencies on how they are to apply the law.

    • Court Rules - Also known as rules of procedure, for any matter involving litigation these rules outline proper court procedure, from preparing documents in proper form, to proper service and filing with the court, through the calculation of crucial deadlines, and specific steps you must take as your case progresses through court.

    • Legal Dictionaries - Legal dictionaries can be very important to legal research, as legal documents often contain unfamiliar words. Legal documents also use certain words and phrases as "terms of art", meaning that as used in a legal context the words have different meanings than you will find in a standard dictionary.

    • Case Law - The past written decisions of courts. There are a number of free and paid sources of case law, with the paid services coming at a wide range of price points depending upon their completeness and what additional services or content they provide. A very good database of case law can be accessed through Google Scholar. Your county law library may offer access to other services. You may be able to hone in on relevant case law if you can access a legal digest at your county law library or an area law school library.

    • Treatises, Hornbooks and Restatements of Law - Although usually best for researching the common law or federal law, and not necessarily describing the law of the specific jurisdiction you are researching, these legal resources provide scholarly analysis or explanation of legal issues.

    • Major Legal Encyclopedias - You may have access to legal encyclopedias and similar resources through your county law library or an area law school. Look for Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS, American Jurisprudence (Am. Jur.) and American Law Reports (ALR).

    • Practitioner's Guides - If you have access to a law library, you will probably find an assortment of state-specific practitioner's guides on an assortment of legal topics. Although written for lawyers, these guides often have a good explanation of legal issues, references to legal authorities, instructions on how to conduct certain types of legal actions, and example forms and documents that you may be able to use or modify for your own needs.

  4. Verify that Your Authority is Still Legally Valid - Make sure that you're looking at the current version of a statute, court rule, regulation, or similar authority. Check to see if your case law remains valid by using a case citation service or, if you can't access one, using a case law search engine to see how the case has been cited or referenced in other cases. Although newer resources may also prove to be invalid, the older the legal authority, the more likely it is that the rule it describes has been modified or repealed.

Primary and Secondary Sources

When you perform legal research you may hear about primary sources and secondary sources:

  • Primary Sources - In law, a primary source is the original source of the law itself. Primary sources include statutes, government regulations, case law and the Constitution.

  • Secondary Sources - Secondary sources analyze, compile, discuss, explain and interpret the law. Secondary sources include treatises, encyclopedias, legal dictionaries, law review articles, books, magazines, journals and similar sources. A quality secondary source can be very helpful as a resource for research and can be very persuasive if used in court. However, whenever you use a secondary source you should check the relevant primary sources to make sure that the secondary source is and remains accurate and relevant.

In-Depth Guidance to Pro Se Legal Research

The South California Association of Law Libraries offers a very useful, free guide to finding and using legal resources, writing legal documents and representing yourself in court, Locating the Law. Although written for librarians, the guide is a comprehensive starting point for learning how to conduct legal research.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.