About "the law"
Researching “the law” on a particular topic is generally a multi-step process that involves checking secondary sources followed by primary sources - statutes, cases, and sometimes, administrative rules or regulations. Very rarely is there a simple answer to a legal question or a single book that will provide the answer.
Where to start
Where you start depends largely on what information you already have. If you already have a citation - for example, to a statute or a case - it may provide a jumping off point to additional sources. If you don't have a citation, or are unfamiliar with an area of law, secondary sources are the best place to start. Secondary sources, which are not the law, provide background information, an introduction to the terminology of a particular topic, and valuable citations to primary sources of law (statutes, cases, administrative rules).
Here is a list of suggested steps for legal research:
- Secondary Sources - provide background information, context of the law, terminology; give citations to cases, statutes, regulations, other secondary sources.
- Statutes - most often the source of the legal rule to be followed; annotated statutes provide citations to cases, secondary sources.
- Regulations - promulgated by agencies to implement statutes passed by the legislature.
- Case Law - provide the rule of law when there is not an applicable statute; cases are also used to help analyze the law and see how courts have applied the rule of law to different sets of facts. Digests serve as a type of index to case law and provide a way to expand research beyond a single case that is on point.
- Practice Guides & Form Books - especially useful for practice-oriented questions and/or self-representation.
- Updating - it is vital in legal research to have the most current information. Legal researchers must update their research as they go, especially with regard to statutes, regulations, and cases.