Finding the Law

Performing Legal Research

As you begin your legal research, remember the legal research process. First, perform a quick preliminary analysis: What are the material facts? What jurisdiction are you in? Is it civil or criminal law? Is it a substantive or procedural area of the law? What is the subject area of the law? What are some search terms and terms of art? What sources of law do you need / could you use?

After the preliminary analysis, move to secondary sources. Secondary sources provide analyses and explanations of primary sources of law, and provide references to those primary sources. Secondary sources are mostly subject area specific. Some examples of secondary sources are Restatements of the Law, treatises, law review or journal articles, American Law Reports (ALR), and encyclopedias. Law review articles can be found either in print or in the Westlaw, Lexis, or Hein Online databases (available by password.) Many law review articles are also freely accessible online at the law review's website. The other types of secondary sources are available in print in the Library (check the catalog to find them), and electronically in Lexis and/or Westlaw.

The next step in the process is to read the primary authority. Now you are reading “the law.” Most annotated versions of codes (compilations of statutes) will provide additional references to case law and secondary sources. The cases themselves might refer to other sources of law that will prove helpful in your research as well. Primary sources are available online at the websites of the respective legislature and courts, as well as various subscription resources, and free aggregation tools such as Cornell's Legal Information Institute or Google Scholar.

The last step in the legal research process is to update. Once you have narrowed down the primary authority to ones you want to use, make sure the law is up to date. If working with online databases, use citators like Shepard’s or KeyCite (LexisNexis and Westlaw, respectively). If you are using books, be sure to look for pocket parts at the back of the book or update booklets shelved with the books.

The Legal Research Process

  1. Preliminary Analysis
  2. Secondary Authority
  3. Primary Authority
  4. Update