How to Plan and Implement a Small Research Project

“Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law” by Attorney Stephen Elias and the Editors of Nolo is another book in the huge legal library published by Nolo, a publisher that prides itself on making the law accessible to everyone. I’m an attorney, and I still like the books put out by Nolo, especially the ones on areas I’m not as familiar with, but want a little knowledge. Nolo always delivers.

Not everyone can afford Lexis or Westlaw, the two Purpose of Research biggest subscriber based on-line legal resources. In law school we had access to both, because both companies wanted to earn your loyalty for when you got out and started practicing. Many firms have one or the other, and I suppose large firms may subscribe to both. Even with access to one of these, I find that I can often find things faster and easier with free resources. Many states have statutes and such on-line these days. More and more are becoming available all the time.

That’s where the book “Legal Research” comes in. It provides easy to follow research methods to help you answer your legal questions. The book has sections for on-line research as well as information regarding law libraries for those who have access to one.

The book consists of 386 pages divided among ten information packed chapters. The chapters include:

One: Understanding the Basics of the Law. Brief descriptions of what the law is, sources of law, state versus federal law, and the court system. Too basic for an attorney, but for the layperson the book was written for, this is a good introduction.

Two: Finding Legal Resources. This chapter explains where legal information is located, primary and secondary sources, internet resources for legal topics, and legal research websites. It includes Lexis and Westlaw, but also other sites that are free. I like the tips and warnings through out the book as well. Good caution that not every opinion you find is good law. Obvious to someone who had it drilled into them during law school, but probably not known to many laypeople.

Three: Identifying Your Legal Issue. Things to know before you go looking, like is the case civil or criminal, figuring out the area of law you want to research, what resources will help you with what you need to find, and figuring out your legal research question. This is important, you want to know what you’re really looking for before you go searching.

Four: Finding and Using Secondary Sources. This chapter explores sources such as online resources (including a bit about deciding if reliable), self-help legal books, legal encyclopedias, form books, practice manuals, continuing legal education publications, law reviews, and so on. Many law firms will have a lot of these kinds of resources, and you will find even more at a law library. This chapter gives a brief overview of what these sources are.

Five: Finding and Using Constitutions, Statutes, Regulations, and Ordinances. These are the bulk of legislatively or administratively created law. This chapter explains how to find these resources and how to use them. It covers finding and using constitutions, finding federal statutes, finding state statutes, understanding them, finding regulations and other rules and ordinances. All of these are important depending on your particular issue. This chapter is a good introduction to this world of “laws” for those that are charting unfamiliar territory.

Six: Finding Cases. Some of our law is not found in statutes, but in the decisions of cases that have already been decided. These cases interpreted laws and are now the rule until legislature changes it, or another case overrules it. Roe v. Wade is an example of a famous case that is looked to regarding abortion law. This chapter helps the reader learn how to use citations to find cases, find cases on the internet, find cases in the law library.