When you first enter the law section of your local library you may feel overwhelmed at first….I know I did on my first research assignment at the University of Richmond Law Library. Don’t panic! There are many ways to tackle the problem and there is really no right or wrong way to begin, but that being said you can spend hours and hours looking in the wrong books. The amount of choices in the library can be very confusing and you need to know where to look for the answer. I hope this will familiarize you with some of the basic tools and methods of legal research.
Types of Authority
The first step in legal research is planning you research path and determine which category of authority to begin with; secondary authority or primary authority. The end result of your legal research should be primary authority (cases and statutes), but generally you start out with secondary authority.
It is important to sit down and really outline the scope of your research assignment and generate key words and search terms. Primary authority is simply a law; these laws may be statutes, rules, or cases established by a government authority. Secondary authority is legal reference material that is not the law. Secondary authorities will include treatises, legal periodicals (also called law reviews), law journals, legal encyclopedias, and American Law Reports.
Legal treatises, written by legal experts, explain and analyze the law of a particular subject guiding you to relevant references to statutes, cases and regulations. A treatise provides an in-depth discussion and breakdown of an area of law and may ultimately direct you to citations for primary authority. They are a great way to learn and understand a particular legal topic and find cases that may relate to that topic. You will find that treatises are long and may have many volumes. They contain a table of contents and an index that allow you to quickly see if the treatise covers the topic you are researching. Judges cite treatises often in many cases, which make them especially authoritative sources.
Legal Periodicals and Journals
I find that articles in legal periodicals are very useful research tools. They are an excellent source when you need recent information on the topic you are researching. Law journals and review articles often provide a very good overview of a particular area of the law; they generally focus on particular issues or topics. Many of them also have a ton of footnotes possibly directing you to cases and statutes relevant to your subject.
To search for articles there are two print indices called the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books (ILP) and the Current Law Index. Most libraries have the electronic version of the ILP, it is called Legaltrac. Take note that these are indexes, not full text and your library may not subscribe to all the journals indexed.
HeinOnline a database of law journal articles is almost always available on the computer terminals in the library. The number of journals may be limited but you will find that this service provides access to journals that pre-date the coverage in Westlaw, Lexis, and Infotrac. Articles that you find will be in full text and can be printed.
Law journals are always cited differently from other journals. The volume number is first, followed by the abbreviation for the journal, the page number, and the date. For example, 23 FL. L. Rev. 510 (1999) refers to an article in volume 23 of the Florida Law Review that begins on page 510 and it was published in 1999.
The journals are usually shelved in alphabetical order.
There are two legal encyclopedias that you should be familiar with: American Jurisprudence, 2d, referred to as Am. Jur. 2d, and Corpus Juris Secundum, referred to as C.J.S. Each set has an index at the end. Encyclopedias provide very general statements or an overview of the law on many topics. They are commonly used to merely get background information on the topic or subject being research and you will find that they contain limited citations to primary authority. Am. Jur. 2d and C.J.S. are not state specific encyclopedias, so use with caution. State encyclopedias available at the library may ne much more useful for directing you to primary authority.
American Law Reports (ALR Annotations)
ALR is wonderful, especially when looking for popular legal topics. This set of books is also very useful in finding citations that direct you to primary authority. The ALR annotations summarize the law on a specific issue. All the material you find in the ALR provide summaries and discussion of general principles and differences between various
Jurisdictions. Always use the Index to Annotations ALR 3rd, 4th, 5th 6th and Federal (ALR Fed.) for an overview of an area of law and citations to primary authority.
ALR annotations are cited with the volume number first, followed by the abbreviation for the set, and page number.
MOST IMPORTANTLY- There are pocket parts in each volume with updated material. Don’t forget to look for and check the pocket part on all your secondary sources!
Primary authorities always include cases and statutes. Remember cases generally interpret statutes.
As you know, bills are filed in the Legislature or Congress. When they pass both the Senate and House of Representatives, they then become law unless vetoed by the President or Governor. At that time, they are sequentially assigned an Act number or Public Law number (United States). Now of course it would be very difficult finding anything in this chronological order…therefore, statutes are arranged in subject matter order in the Revised Statutes and Codes pertaining to your state and the United States Code.
Annotated statutes can have a variety of historical notes, law review references, and notes of cases that interpret the statute. Again, there will be pocket parts to look at. The pocket part will contain any amendments to the statutes as well as more recent case notes.
There are three versions of the U.S. Code: (unannotated) United States Code (U.S.C.) published by the Government Printing Office; United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.); and United States Code Service (U.S.C.S). Use the U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S. The U.S.C. is also available on the Internet: www.gpoaccess.gov/uscode/index.html but please be aware that it may not be as current as the books in the library. The U.S. Code is also available via Loislaw at the library computers.
There is a subject index at the end of the U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S. There is also a Popular Name Table to look laws up by popular names, such as the Lemon Law or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Use West’s Statutes Annotated (a/k/a the green books) to find your state specific statutes. They are usually in alphabetical order.
The internet and computerized tools of legal research are not always the answer to your legal issue. You can use your State’s statutes, cases and administrative code at the public access terminals in the library. Use LOISLAW via the Internet. Many state statutes are on the internet for free. Portions of the Administrative Code may also be found.
United States Supreme Court cases are available at various sites on the internet. Try www.findlaw.com or www.law.cornell.edu. These are also good beginning points for U.S. Court of Appeals decisions, the U.S. Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.
LexisNexis and Westlaw are awesome and can be very helpful in your legal research, but they are subscription services and can be extremely expensive.
The knowledge of case law and the ability to effectively and accurately research the law is an integral part of being a private investigator. Laws change everyday and the only reliable way to stay abreast of all these changes is through legal research. As you become familiar with your library and where legal research materials are located and how to properly use those tools, you will eventually be able to customize your research approach to each individual research assignment. You will know whether to start with a treatise, legal encyclopedia, or some other source.
Remember there isn’t a simple 3-step approach to legal research. Your success will come from understanding the legal authorities and how to use them. When you achieve this, you will save yourself many hours of researching in the wrong places.
Good luck and happy hunting.