Introduction to Legal Research
Legal research can seem daunting, but the resources we list here can help get you started. In order to begin your search for information, there are few things you should consider first.
One of your first steps should be to identify the legal question(s) you are trying to answer. What information are you trying to find? To help figure that out, it is important to understand that the U.S. legal system consists of various levels of government, and each of them has its own jurisdiction. Federal law is the supreme law of the U.S., but each state also has its own set of laws. For example, in Texas we have laws that are in effect across the state, but there may also be local ordinances at the individual county or municipal level.
If your question deals specifically with the courts, there is a similar structure. There is a U.S. federal court system that hears cases dealing with federal laws and a state court system for state laws. Both of these systems consist of district trial courts at the lowest level. Decisions from trial courts are appealed to a court of appeal. And decisions from courts of appeal can then be appealed to the high courts. At the federal level, that is the U.S. Supreme Court. In the Texas court system, the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals are the two high courts.
Clearly identifying the question(s) you are trying to answer and understanding that your research will most likely involve a specific jurisdiction — usually at the state law level — are key first steps in conducting legal research. The guides below should help you through the process.
Legal Research Guides
The resources below are great legal research guides for beginners and non-lawyers. They help to explain the ins and outs of legal research, which include how to determine the jurisdiction you need to research, identifying the type of resources you should consult, understanding legal citations, and knowing how to navigate through legal jargon and terms you may not be familiar with.
- Basics of Legal Research [PDF]
This guide, originally found on the Cornell University Law Library website but now hosted on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals website, is great at giving you an overview of legal research. It describes the various sources of legal authority so that you can determine what you should be looking at. It covers statutory law, administrative law, case law, and secondary sources such as law reviews and reference materials.
This guide, put out by the American Association of Law Libraries, is primarily for non-lawyers. It explains how legal citations work and helps you to determine what materials you should be looking at for your research. It also explains where you could go for additional help in person.
This handbook, written by law librarians with the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, serves as a great resource for anyone conducting legal research. It explains the basics of legal research in easy-to-understand language. Because the handbook was written by law librarians in California, it contains specific examples and references to California law, but it is still a great tool for anyone who wishes to conduct legal research.
This guide is put out by Nolo, a leading publisher in the legal field. It explains what statutes are and why they are important for legal research. It shows you how to determine what type of law you should look for (i.e., federal or state), what resources to use, and how case law relates to legal research.
The legal research guides above instruct you on how to locate legal information. Many of the resources that the guides instruct you to use are available through the Texas State Law Library. Unfortunately, many legal resources are not available online and you would need to visit a law library in person. Nevertheless, here are some other resources you might want to use in your legal research.
On our Web site, we have a handful of resources that can help you out. If you are researching a specific area of law, consult our research guides by topic to see if the library has a guide for the area of law you are research. You might also review the description of our library materials to see if what you're looking for is available at the Texas State Law Library. Some of our resources -- such as our list of recommended titles and treatises, digital copies of old Texas laws, or our library catalog -- could help get you started.
If you are researching a law or a piece of legislation, see our resources on law & legislation. For research on the courts, see our resources about the court system. Also try our listing of legal resources online.
If you have questions or are stuck in your research, you can Ask a Librarian for assistance.