Doing legal research on your own can be an intimidating and confusing task, especially with the added stressors brought on by related legal issues. Though daunting, it is possible to do independent legal research and find accurate information on whatever your topic may be. This article contains a step-by-step guide that is aimed to help you conduct this research in a manner that is efficient, organized, and correct. If you have any more questions, you can contact us for more information.

It is important to note that this article is not aimed toward any specific avenue of legal research, nor does it advise that you take legal action without representation. Rather this article is a step by step guide to legal research. It aims to help guide your personal legal inquiries so that you can be informed. For the purposes of this article, we will be using intellectual property as an example – but this does not mean that your search has to be related to use the tips found in this article.

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Legal Research Guide

A step-by-step guide for conducting legal and law-related research at any level. This guide is designed to help people organize their legal research and navigate the available resources on their subject matter to produce the best results on their own. You can also refer to our article on finding and organizing legal research. If your research is to find out if your invention is patentable please check out our article on how to do a prior art search.

Estimated Time: 1 hour

  • Step 1: Decide What You are Looking For

    Determine Objective

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    “Legal Research” includes a broad range of topics at various depths. For example, you could be interested in finding a legal job or law firm, legal news, government policy, or be trying to represent your own interests. Legal research is most often used to find support for a specific legal issue or decision.

    Oftentimes seeking professional help is necessary, but there are some topics that could be researched effectively without representation to your desired end result. Deciding on what the goal of your research is before trying to navigate often complicated legal resources is the best way to stay focused and efficient. Additionally, this will help you to go beyond a quick online search of your topic and actually find the information that you need.

  • Step 2: Determine the Scope of your Research

    Determine Scope of Research

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    Once you have decided on what you are generally looking for, it is then important to determine the scope of the research that will be necessary to acquire the appropriate information. A good way to do this is by writing down the facts of what you know before getting started. For example, suppose you are a creative entrepreneur working virtually who is interested in protecting your emerging brand.

    You know that you have original artistic work that you do not want copied, which can be broken down into  “who, what, when, where, why and how” questions. In this instance, you and your business are the “who,” your original artwork and brand is the “what,” the present and future of your business is the “when,” your digital platforms are the “where,” and protecting your intellectual property from being copied or stolen is the “why.” Now, all that you need to know is “how” to protect your work, thus defining the legal scope of your research.
    Once you have determined the scope of your research, write down all and any additional facts and/or supporting information that you may have regarding your case. Even if it may seem irrelevant now, it could be important later. This will also help you to stay organized in your search. For organization ideas you can also refer to our article on finding and organizing legal research for more details on the legal research process.

  • Step 3: Define the Legal Issue, if Necessary

    Define Legal Issue

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    In the example above, the unanswered question of “how to protect original artistic works” can be resolved with a copyright registration, which can actually be filed on your own – see Carson Patents 3 steps to copyright for more information. Oftentimes, however, preventative legal action could be overdue. This means that there is a legal issue that needs to be resolved. If there is a legal issue, identify the legal problem and the desired outcome. This is another way to stay organized and focused in your research.

  • Step 4: Identify the Relevant Jurisdiction

    Identify Jurisdiction

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    For most legal issues there is a relevant jurisdiction, or court, that will deal with the type of proceedings that you are interested in. Thus, it can become important to identify relevant jurisdiction. For example, does your legal project deal with international law, federal law, or state law? Determining which courts will rule over your case is essential when conducting relevant research.

  • Step 5: Find Sources and Gather Information

    Gather Information from Sources

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    Now that you know a little bit about what you’re looking to find with your research, you are positioned well to effectively find it! Though traditionally legal resources were limited to the library, there are now accessible online resources (including library databases) that provide the same information if not more. This step can be very extensive depending on how in-depth you need to go. Because of the vast amount of information that is available, it is especially important to stay focused and organized during this step, although it is a good practice to maintain throughout the entire process.

    There are online resources to help you find accurate information at any level. If you’d like to learn more about intellectual property law, Carson Patents offers free online resources on our website regarding patent application services, trademark applications, or copyrighting and via our blog.


  • Topic to research


  • Internet connection

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