Finding and Organizing Legal Resources
The amount of legal information available, both online and in physical copies, is extensive and intimidating. There are many online resources available for any inquiry. This article contains a short list of sources that may be helpful to you in your research as well as organizational tips, but is by no means all-inclusive. You can also look at our article “How to do Independent Legal Research” for more information on how to begin the legal process with a step-by-step guide to help you in your research.
Finding Legal Resources – List of Available Legal Resources
When finding and organizing legal resources, the first step is locating what information you want to use. Here is a list of online legal resources that may help you to get started on your search.
- Legal Database Guide by Harvard Law
- Library Guide to free legal research tools provided by Harvard law
- West Law legal research database and tools
- Lexis collection of primary law
- Law.com offers legal news and publications related to the legal profession
- Bloomberg Law publishes articles on new legal developments and cases, often related to business
- Congress.gov can help you search for government legislation and related congressional activity
- Govinfo.gov provides public access to government documents, such as congressional bills, presidential documents, and public and private laws, as well as US court opinions
- LII: Legal Information Institute provides free access to laws and legal information including legal definitions and explanations
- USA.gov is an online guide to government information and services
This list is by no means all-inclusive as there are many more digital and physical resources available. We encourage you to reach out for professional advice regardless of any supplemental information available.
Organizing Your Research – How to Organize Legal Research
Organization is essential throughout this whole process of legal research – even lawyers are often required to explain their research strategy. After you have found your sources, it is important to organize them in a logical way. You can keep track of your sources through a variety of tools, including manually on paper or on excel. In any circumstance, you should include the following items in the documentation of your research:
- The date so that you can update and supplement your results as case-relevant information may be altered pending new court decisions.
- Keywords, topics and key numbers to prevent repetition in your research. Keeping track of keywords can also help you to develop a strategy that produces better results. It could be helpful for you to identify and define some of the legal terms related to your issue as well, especially if you are unfamiliar with this type of vocabulary. Setting aside a list of “key terms” or potential search terms related to your issue can help you to familiarize yourself with your topic allowing you to better understand future proceedings or related court cases.
- Citation or link to the original source of information, whether it is physical or digital resource.
- Where you saved the information or where it could be accessed again.
- Follow up information on that resource if necessary.
Categorizing – Primary Sources Secondary Sources and Tertiary Sources
When organizing sources, depending on the depth of your research, you may wish to also categorize results into primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Primary sources are issued directly from a law making body, such as a court. These are an essential part of legal research, which is where secondary and even tertiary sources are important. Secondary sources can help you save time in particular, because they explain legal terms and cases more thoroughly than primary sources like an individual case or statute might. Tertiary sources include supporting information that help you index or digest other primary or secondary sources.
The three branches of government create primary sources of law, which include constitutions, statutes, regulations, and cases. Often times, these sources may be difficult to understand or too specific to be applied to your specific inquiry; but they are a good place to start as they are the backbone to whatever legal argument you are making.
Out of these three categories of sources available, secondary sources cover the most broad range of information available. They support your argument and research by citing primary sources. There are different types of secondary sources to review, including but not limited to:
- Legal Encyclopedias: these relate to the level of jurisdiction of your legal issue. There are legal encyclopedias at the federal and state level.
- Treatises: these are book length expositions on a law as it relates to a specific subject. They can be a short, singular volume or part of a larger, multivolume set. Finding relevant treatises involves a search with the keywords that you have identified. Some treatises are made publicly available and can be found on Nolo.
- Law Review Articles: these analyze and critique legal topics and have extensive references to other sources (including primary sources). They often focus on more recent topics and are published in conjunction with a university or by lawyers. Make sure that when reading a law review on your outlined topic that it is in the relevant jurisdiction so that any subsequent legal arguments are valid.
- American Law Reports (ALR): these are in-depth articles on more narrow legal topics and they are not jurisdiction specific.
Tertiary sources summarize the information found in primary and secondary sources and provide background information on a topic, idea, key term, or event. Encyclopedias (including digital encyclopedias like Wikipedia), dictionaries, and biographies are all tertiary sources.
Once you have collected enough support towards your case, you will have responded to your initial question and hopefully will have the necessary supporting evidence to arrive at your desired result. You can learn more about legal resource planning and how to conduct legal and law-related research. Once again, this is a fairly broad outline of how to find legal resources and organizational methods that is limited in many ways. Seeking professional help is often the best way to resolve legal questions.
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