About "the law"
Researching “the law” on a particular topic is generally a multi-step process that involves checking a number of 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. Discovering what “the law” is in a given situation means finding the rule that is applicable - usually a statute, or in some instances a case - and then applying the rule to the facts of the situation. Case law is generally used to see how courts have applied the rule in other situations. The key is finding a case with facts that are analogous to your own.
Where to start
Where you start depends largely on what information you already have about the area of law you are researching. If you already have a citation - to a statute or a case - you are, to a certain extent, ahead of the game. Statutes and cases provide excellent jumping off points to additional sources of the law. If you don't have a citation, or are unfamiliar with an area of law, secondary sources are a good place to start. These 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).
What follows is a list of suggested steps for legal research - items to think about as you move through the process of legal research. Titles and locations of sources for each step are included in this document, along with three finding guides for case law.
- 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.
- Cases/Digests - 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.