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Legal research in the United States

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Legal research in the United States

"Legal research is the process of identifying and retrieving information necessary to support legal decision-making. In its broadest sense, legal research includes each step of a course of action that begins with an analysis of the facts of a problem and concludes with the application and communication of the results of the investigation." [1]

This article focuses on the process of finding legal documents issued by courts, legislatures and other government entities in the United States. Finding legal information in the United States can be challenging. Many lawyers use electronic databases such as LexisNexis or Westlaw to access legal information. However, these resources may not be accessible to all. Special focus is given in this article to finding free legal materials on the Internet. As this article discusses a process, it is somewhat informal in tone.

The next section of this article provides necessary background for understanding the process of legal research. Concepts such as law, legal authority and jurisdiction are taught to law students during their first year in Law School. The process of legal research is then discussed, followed by discussion of the primary sources of law (cases, statutes, and regulations).


  • The process of legal research 1
  • Judicial branch sources (Cases) 2
  • Legislative branch sources (Statutes) 3
  • Executive branch sources (Regulations) 4
  • Secondary sources 5
  • Citing to Legal Documents 6
  • Getting Help 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10
    • Major Free Online Legal Research Portals 10.1

The process of legal research

Although this is a process oriented article, there is no one right way to do legal research. There are however practices that have proven to be more efficient and cost effective. There is an overall "game plan" that is taught in the first year of Law school. The details vary according to the textbook, but a general search strategy might be:

  • frame the Issue (try to figure out what the case is about/ what legal issue or issues you will need to research)
  • brainstorm search terms (think up synonyms - assisted suicide? right to die? euthanasia?
  • determine jurisdiction and time frame (do you have a lot of time to research this? Usually not. You may have to make do with a quick and dirty resource instead of an in-depth, ever so scholarly one)
  • decide which format to use (print or electronic- this often just depends on what you have access to)
  • locate, read, and update secondary sources
  • locate read and update primary authority (cases, statutes, and regulations)
  • look up rules of procedure, ethics, non-legal and other materials if needed
  • repeat the above steps, as needed, depending on your search results.

Adapted from The Process of Legal Research by Christina L. Kunz et al.

The legal research textbooks below are good resources for finding out more about legal research and research strategies):

  • Robert C. Berring and Elizabeth A. Edinger. Finding the Law. (12th Ed., West Group Publishing, 2005).
  • Roy M. Mersky and Donald J. Dunn. Fundamentals of Legal Research. (Foundation Press, 2002).
  • Morris L. Cohen and Kent C. Olson. Legal Research in a Nutshell. (9th Ed., Thomson West, 2007).
  • Morris L. Cohen, Robert C. Berring, and Kent C. Olson. How to Find the Law. (West Publishing Company, 1989).
  • Stephen Elias and Susan Levinkind. Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law. (14th Ed., Nolo Press, 2007).
  • Christina L. Kunz et al. The Process of Legal Research. (7th Ed., Aspen Publishers, 2007).
  • Mark K. Osbeck. Impeccable Research: a Concise Guide to Mastering Legal Research Skills. (Thomson West 2010).
  • Amy E. Sloan. Basic Legal Research: Tools and Strategies. (3rd Ed., Aspen Publishers, 2006).

A very good search strategy is to find a legal research guide with a search engine such as Google before you leap. Your local library will probably have research guides on a wide variety of topics.

Judicial branch sources (Cases)

The Judicial branch is the court system. Each jurisdiction in the U.S. judiciary (federal and the fifty states) has any number of courts, usually one of three types:

  1. a trial court,
  2. an appeals court,
  3. a "court of last resort," often (but not always) known as a Supreme Court.

On the federal level, there is a Supreme Court of the United States, United States court of appeals, and a trial court, which is known as the United States district court. The federal appellate courts are subdivided into numbered "circuits." Pennsylvania, for example, is in the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

In general, the decisions of a higher court in a court system may be considered "binding" on the lower courts in that court system. The decisions of the Supreme court of a particular state are binding on the courts within that state. However, the decisions of a Pennsylvania state court may or may not be followed by a federal court in the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania. The status of United States Supreme court opinions is complex. Many consider these cases to be binding on all US courts as a practical matter. However, Cohen, Berring, and Olsen, in their book "Finding the Law," state:

"The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in any federal dispute and has the final word on federal issues raised in state courts. In most situation, however, it has discretion to decline to review lower court decisions and disposes of most matters by denying petitions for certiorare or dismissing appeals. Only a small percentage of the cases appealed to the Supreme Court are accepted for consideration."

From: Morris L. Cohen, Robert C. Berring, and Kent C. Olson, How to find the law. (West Publishing, 1989) p. 26.

Only a small percentage of court decisions are officially published in a print court reporter. The most published decisions are issued by the United States Supreme court. State trial courts produce the lowest percentage of published cases. Some courts provide copies of their decisions free on the web while others do not. Even if they are on the web they seldom go back before 1994, when the web first became popular. The only exception is with U.S. Supreme Court opinions.

Cases on the web can often be found via the website of the individual court. The Supreme Court of the United States, for example, provides the text of recent opinions on its website. It is one of the best places to obtain new opinions. The United States court of appeals and State courts can also be a source of free legal information.

In print, to find the cases, legal researchers use indexes of various types. Classification systems provide index terms. For example, there may be a category of law, torts (non-crime injuries to people). There are many types of torts, or causes of Action, such as slander. These causes of actions have various elements which must be proved to establish a claim (there may also be various defenses). The general category, the cause of action and the various elements of the cause of action and defenses may all be index terms. The major classification for finding law cases is the West American Digest System.

Matching your thinking to the mind of the person who wrote the index can be a trying task, particularly to those not generally familiar with the basic legal subject areas. The key to using legal indexes is to identify not only the key facts but the legal issues which are central to the case. Keyword searches in databases may also be a challenge, because people may describe legal concepts in varying ways. "Issue spotting" is a skill that lawyers hone in law school and throughout their careers as they gain experience. For the layperson, reading secondary sources, such as books and journal articles, can help.

Once a case has been found, legal researchers must make sure that it has not been overturned by a higher court. Lawyers use citators such as Shepard's Citations to make sure that their case is still "good law." This process is often known as Shepardizing after the name of the service. Citators track resources, written at a later point in time, which cite back to a particular case. Because cases cite to related cases, citators can be used to find cases which are on the same topic. A common research strategy is to use "one good case" to find related cases.

Legal forms can be some of the hardest documents to find because one person may call a form by one name while another person knows it by an entirely different name (neither of which may be the actual, official name of the form). The same form may be known by a different name in a different jurisdiction. Law libraries often have many sets of formbooks to search.

Legal researchers may also need the briefs and other background materials connected with a case, which are included in docket records. Other types of documents may exist in databases which cannot be searched with search engines such as Google. These 'invisible web' sources may take time to ferret out.

Legislative branch sources (Statutes)

Some jurisdictions provide copies of their statutes online while others do not. You can often find new, or "slip laws" on the web (arranged in chronological order), as well as the subject arrangement of the statutes, known as the codified version, or code. The official code for federal statutes, the United States Code is usually one to two years out of date both in print and on the web. Legal Researchers often use the more timely, commercially published United States Code Annotated (USCA) or the United States Code Service (USCS). The USCA is available on Westlaw while the USCS is available on Lexis. They are called 'annotated codes' because they include summaries of cases which interpret the meaning of the statute. They may also include references to journal articles, legal encyclopedias and other research materials so it is good to look in an annotated code either in print or online as soon as you know there is a statute involved in your research problem.

In addition to the text of the current law itself, legal researchers may also have to research the background documents connected with the statute, which is known as Legislative history. Legislative history is used to find what is known as the "legislative intent," or purpose behind statutory language. Again, legislative history documents may be found both in print in law libraries and government documents libraries, as well as in online formats such as Lexis and Westlaw.

THOMAS the Library of Congress legislative information service, provides the fulltext of proposed bills, bill status information (did it become a public law? who sponsored it? what committee was it referred to?), the text of debates from the Congressional Record, the full text of committee reports and other legislative information. The Library of Congress provides access to legislative documents from 1774 through 1875 as part of its American Memory Project Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation digital library.

Executive branch sources (Regulations)

A legislature usually has neither the time nor the expertise to administer all of the details of a particular statute. It may, for example, pass a statute mandating clean water. However, it delegates the authority to actually implement the statute to a Government agency, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Agencies issue administrative Regulations to implement the details of the "enabling legislation" that gave the agency authority to act.

The challenge with the executive branch is to track down the rules and regulations of federal and state administrative agencies. Luckily administrative regulations have a "life cycle" that is very similar to that of statutes. Regulations start out as an agency document, which many agencies now post on the web. Similar to statutes, regulations are often published in chronological order in registers, and finally are published in subject order in codes.

Federal regulations, for example, are first printed in the Federal Register, before they are published in subject order in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Because of this "publication pattern" in order to find out if there has been a change with respect to a particular regulation a print CFR user has to go through a two step process of checking 1) the List of Sections Affected (LSA) and 2) the latest issue of the Federal Register for the current month. The United States Government Printing Office has an e-CFR pilot project is underway to provide a version of the CFR without having to refer to a separate publication for updates.

The foremost executive branch entity is, of course, the Office of President of the United States. The White House has its own website. Presidential documents are published in the Federal Register and in Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Presidential documents can also be accessed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and the Public Papers of the Presidents available in print and at the United States Government Printing Office website.

The relationship between statutes and regulations means that one can usually never consider just a regulation alone. This intertwined grouping of regulations, statutes, and cases is often best deciphered using secondary sources such as books and journal articles.

Secondary sources

Books and journal articles are available at your school or public library. See the "Getting Help" section, below, for information on finding libraries. In law libraries books are known as "legal treatises." You can also find legal encyclopedias, such as Corpus Juris Secundum or American Jurisprudence and resources such as American Law Reports in a law library. Many major legal treatises may be found online on Lexis and Westlaw. Google Books may also be useful resource.

Although it is suggested to look first to secondary sources for general background explanation, free authoritative secondary sources are even scarcer on the web than the primary sources listed above. Law dictionaries can be found in many libraries, on Lexis and Westlaw, and free on the web. All law libraries and many general libraries have a copy of Black's Law Dictionary.

Many law reviews, other legal journals and magazines, and legal newspapers place content on the web. Not all law journals provide their text on the web, however. You may need to search Lexis or Westlaw, HeinOnline, or obtain the item in print from a library. You might also try Google Scholar, which searches general scholarly articles.

Citing to Legal Documents

Another challenge is figuring out how to cite to items, or how to decipher a legal citation once you have encountered one in a primary or secondary source. The main problem with online cases is that they may or may not have the official print pagination required by the major legal citation systems. The vendor neutral citation movement has made some inroads here, so there are provisions for citing to "web sources." However, it is by far easier to work with the official cites.

Getting Help

County law libraries are usually open to the public. American Bar Association provides a lawyer locator and legal referral information [3] as well as legal information for the general public.

See also


  1. ^ J. Myron Jacobstein and Roy M. Mersky, Fundamentals of Legal Research, 8th ed. (Foundation Press, 2002) p. 1

External links

Major Free Online Legal Research Portals

There are several portals and information sources you may want to try, such as Jurist, the American Encyclopedia of Law, and the Cornell Legal Information Institute. Legal Research in a Nutshell Is one of many good guidebooks to legal research. The website for the book provides many links to free legal research sources on the web. The Zimmerman Guide provides a handful of good places to start in both print and electronic format for a wide variety of legal topics.

Supreme court opinions can also be found at the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, Findlaw, LexisOne. The websites for the federal courts can be found at the Federal Court Locator, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Lexisone and the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute allows searching all of the federal courts at the same time. However, Lexisone only allows free searching of state and federal opinions for the last ten years and the court sites accessible via Cornell typically go back to the mid nineties.

There are several websites which provide links to state court websites, such as Findlaw and LexisOne. The Cornell Law School Legal information institute is also a good resource for finding US state court websites. Some courts provide court rules and forms free on the web while others do not. One of the largest collections of links to court rules and forms on the web can be found at

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