Legal Research

How to Find & Understand the Law

Legal Research: Take the law into your own hands.

Find and access the laws you need with help from Legal Research.  This complete, plain-English guide to the basics of legal research shows you how to:

  • locate the best legal resources online or in the library
  • understand and utilize statutes, cases, and regulations
  • research your legal issue like an attorney

See below for a full product description.

  • Product Details
  • Do you have legal questions at home, at work, or as part of law-related course work? Legal Research provides everything you need, laying out easy-to-follow research methods that will help you find the right answers.

    Find out how to:

    • locate and understand statutes, regulations, and cases
    • make sure your research is 100% up to date, and
    • organize your research results into a memorandum of law for use at school, at work, or in court.

    Completely updated for the 19th edition, Legal Research shows how to find statutes, cases, background information, and answers to specific legal questions online. Even more important, you’ll be guided to the most reliable and user-friendly sites, so you won’t drown in an information flood.

    Lots of examples and easy-to-understand instructions teach you how to master all the basic legal research tools, including:

    • online search engines
    • reliable free legal websites
    • legal encyclopedias, periodicals, and treatises
    • annotated legal codes and statutes
    • published reports of state and federal court cases
    • case digests and Shepard's Citations, and
    • the best legal blogs


    “The simplest, most concise and articulate description of the legal research process available.” -Tom Holm, Director of Lawyering Skills Clinical Program, UCLA School of Law

    Number of Pages
  • About the Author
    • Editors of Nolo

      Nolo’s editorial department includes more than a dozen legal editors and a full-time legal researcher, who collectively have more than 100 years’ experience turning legal jargon into plain English. Most of our editors gave up careers as practicing lawyers in favor of furthering Nolo’s mission: Getting legal information into the hands of the people who really need it.

      All Nolo legal editors specialize in certain areas of the law, and many are recognized as national experts in their field. They write books, edit books by outside authors, and in their spare time write online articles and blogs, develop legal forms, and create the legal content of Nolo software.

  • Table of Contents
  • Your Legal Research Companion

    1. Understanding the Basics of the Law

    • What Is the Law?
    • Sources of Law
    • State Versus Federal Law
    • The Court System

    2. Finding Legal Resources

    • Locating Legal Information
    • Primary Sources and Secondary Sources
    • Looking for Legal Resources Online
    • Legal Research Websites

    3. Identifying Your Legal Issue

    • How to Approach Your Research
    • Step 1: Is the Issue Civil or Criminal?
    • Step 2: Figuring Out the Area of Law You’re Researching
    • Step 3: What Resources Will Help You Find What You Need?
    • Step 4: Figure Out Your Legal Research Question

    4. Finding and Using Secondary Sources

    • Online Resources
    • Self-Help Legal Books
    • Legal Encyclopedias
    • Form Books
    • Practice Manuals
    • Continuing Legal Education Publications
    • Law Reviews and Other Legal Periodicals
    • Specialized Loose-Leaf Materials
    • Treatises and Monographs
    • Restatements of the Law

    5. Finding and Using Constitutions, Statutes, Regulations, and Ordinances

    • Finding and Using Constitutions
    • Finding Federal Statutes
    • Finding State Statutes
    • Understanding and Using Federal and State Statutes
    • Finding and Using Regulations
    • Finding and Using Procedural Statutes and Rules
    • Finding and Using Local Laws or Ordinances

    6. Finding Cases

    • Using Citations to Find Cases
    • Finding Cases Online
    • Finding Cases in the Law Library
    • The Next Step

    7. Using Case Law

    • What Is a Case?
    • How Cases Are Published
    • How Cases Affect Later Disputes

    8. Validating Your Research

    • Making Sure It’s “Good Law”
    • How to Shepardize a Case
    • Shepardizing Statutes
    • Using Shepard’s for Research

    9. Organizing and Putting Your Legal Research to Use

    • Organizing Your Research
    • How to Write a Legal Memorandum
    • Going to Court
    • Finding and Working With a Lawyer



    • Topic-Specific Research Sites


  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 1
    Understanding the Basics of the Law

    Trying to research the law can be a daunting task. Fortunately, online research has made it so that’s no longer the case. Today, many people find it easy to do their own legal research when they need to resolve a private dispute, understand and work with a legal professional, or advance an academic or professional career. Often, legal research can be done in the comfort of a home or office.

    In this book, we’ll help you find the resources you need to conduct legal research and explain the steps you’ll take to ensure you’re using the correct law. But before we get started, it will help to have a basic understanding of how the law works. In this chapter, we’ll cover:

    • what “the law” is
    • the sources of case law, statutory law, and administrative law
    • the differences between state and federal law, and
    • the structure of the U.S. courts.

    This framework will help you understand how to conduct legal research, help you draft legal questions, and most importantly, find the answers you need.

    What Is the Law?

    Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about what “the law” means. In the real world, we get along fine without this knowledge. No one needs to see a written law to know it’s a crime to steal or destroy someone else’s property. And we know we can be held responsible by our legal system. So the law doesn’t play much of a part in our daily lives until we get a traffic ticket, are denied a government service, buy or sell a house, or dispute a bill. But when that happens, we need to know the rules of the game.

    The first step is understanding where particular types of law come from because it makes it easier to find the law that applies to a particular problem. So that’s where we’ll start.

    That being said, knowing the law that applies in your matter doesn’t mean it always functions predictably (although that’s the goal). After all, prosecutors choose whether to bring charges against defendants, so committing a crime doesn’t necessarily lead to prosecution. And while we might be entitled to a government service—a Social Security payment, for example—that doesn’t help much when the Social Security Administration denies a claim. The reality is, laws are applied by real people in the real world, so things don’t always play out as perfectly as we might want or expect. Even so, successful litigation starts with solid preparation—and the first step is finding the law that applies to your case.

    Sources of Law

    You won’t find the law in a single set of books. Instead, it is made up of numerous separate collections, and one or more might apply to any given situation. Here are the general categories you can expect to encounter:

    • The U.S. Constitution. This high-level, comparatively short document explains how our legal system is structured. It outlines the responsibilities of the three branches of government. It also describes the authority retained by the federal government and gives the remaining power to the states. The amendments guarantee citizens’ fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech and to bear arms, and limit what the government can do.
    • Federal statutes. As we’ll explain below, Congress frequently passes new laws that are compiled in code books. These written laws are called statutes.
    • Federal cases. Federal courts decide cases about federal law and explain how to interpret federal statutes (how a statute should be applied in certain situations isn’t always clear—or even anticipated). They also hear cases between two parties that are from different states.
    • Federal administrative regulations. The legislature cannot write all the statutes needed to regulate society—there simply isn’t enough time. Instead, the legislature shifts specific law-making authority to government agencies through an “enabling statute.” For instance, agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency are created by the U.S. Congress and are part of and overseen by the executive branch. They issue regulations (law) using the authority granted by the enabling statute. Regulations are part of federal administrative law.

    Sovereign Native American tribes have their own courts and laws. These essentially function outside the system we describe here, and are beyond the scope of this book.

    • State constitutions. Like the federal government, state governments have constitutions that form the basis of their legal structure.
    • State statutes. Like Congress, state legislatures pass statutes, which constitute state statutory law. While federal laws apply everywhere, these laws apply only within the state.
    • State cases. State courts decide cases about state law.
    • State administrative regulations. State legislatures create agencies to regulate particular areas of law. The agencies write and enforce regulations that constitute state administrative law.
    • Local ordinances. Local governments pass ordinances that become police codes, building codes, planning codes, health codes, and so forth.
    • Your legal research will probably touch on only two or three of these legal sources in most cases. For example, if you want to sue your automobile mechanic because you got into an accident after he failed to fix your brakes properly, you’d turn to state statutory and case law. You won’t need to look at the federal Constitution or local ordinances. We’ll explain more about these sources of law below.


    Both state constitutions and the federal Constitution are the founding documents that form the basis of authority for all other forms of law— that is, they tell the various branches of government what authority they have to create new law. As we’ll explain below, legislatures and judges create law, but that law cannot conflict with the constitution.

    Statutes: Legislative-Made Law

    What most of us tend to think of when we think of the law are the acts passed by our national and state legislatures. We might understand, for example, that Congress has decided the income tax rate or that our state legislators have determined that it’s illegal to discriminate against someone in the workplace based on sexual orientation.

    A statute comes into being when the legislature passes a bill. The text is written down, given an identification number, and arranged in numerical order in a code book (or “codified”). As new bills are passed, existing statutes are amended, or the new laws are incorporated into the existing code books. Collectively, they create what are known as codes or statutes.

    Both federal and state statutes are usually grouped together by subject matter. For example, the California Family Code includes most of the laws that affect families facing divorce, legal separation, and child custody disputes. At the same time, Title 12 of the Connecticut code deals with state taxation. This organizational system makes finding relevant materials much easier when it’s time to do legal research. We’ll discuss how to use and understand statutes in greater detail in Chapter 5.

    Common Law: Judicial Interpretation

    While statutes are an essential part of our law, they actually make up a small part of it. Because we don’t always agree on what statutes or the Constitution mean, we need courts to provide guidance and to explain how to apply them in particular situations. As a result, interpreting these laws is primarily a responsibility of our court system.

    For example, in a child custody case, a law might say that a judge should decide custody with the “best interests” of the child in mind. The child’s mother might think that means living with her with occasional visits to the child’s father, whereas the father might feel the child should live part-time with each parent. On each side, the parties have a different interpretation of the meaning of “best interests” and how the law applies to them. In this situation, a judge will look at case law to see how previous judges handled factual situations similar to the one before the judge. Doing so will help the judge determine what “best interests” means in light of the circumstances of the people involved in the lawsuit.

    So how do these cases come about? Judges sometimes create a document called an “opinion” that explains the judge’s rationale. Judicial opinions form what is known as “common law” or “case law.” It’s a judge’s view of what the statute means when applied to the particular facts of the case before the court.

    Common law is developed over time as opinions build on one another (most jurisdictions require judges to follow the logic of certain earlier opinions—more below). So you won’t find common law written down in one place, like a statute that sets forth a clear rule. Instead, the courts publish opinions in books called “reports” or “reporters.” Federal and state courts have separate sets of reporters which organize opinions, or “cases,” by date.

    Because common law is part of the law, judges have to consider not only what statutes say but what judges before them have said on the same issue. In other words, court opinions serve as authority or “precedent” that other judges are usually required to consider when deciding similar cases. The reasoning in previous cases that a judge is required to follow is called “binding” authority.

    But courts are arranged in a hierarchal system. Every judge isn’t required to consider every other judge’s opinion each time a similar issue comes up—just the opinions of the courts above them in the same jurisdiction. As a result, you’ll need to know which judicial opinions to review when researching a legal issue. We’ll explain more about how to do that in Chapter 7.


    What If a Judge Was Wrong?

    The system of judicial precedent works well when judges correctly interpret the law. But sometimes they don’t—for example, what if judges decide, as they did many years ago, that it’s okay to segregate people based on their race? Is a judge bound to follow a law that is wrong?

    Fortunately, the answer is no—but judges don’t often deviate, so don’t expect a trial judge to disregard existing law. Judges respect a legal principle called stare decisis—Latin for “let the decision stand.” Unless there is an excellent reason to depart from current law, judges don’t. Most lawyers will tell you they’ve never had a trial judge disregard current law. Instead, trial judges expect litigants seeking legal change to appeal the case to a higher court with authority to do so. So every judge’s decision isn’t destined to stand forever.

    Also, courts recognize mistakes, take current social values and mores into account, and in rare instances, liberally interpret the law to fit the desired result when so inclined. But the principle of stare decisis is a strong one.

    The reality is that no one—including judges—want to be found wrong (or “appealed” in a judge’s case), so judges are reluctant to discard well-established rules and, when necessary, will take pains to explain and justify a significant departure from precedent (previous decisions). So what is the takeaway? Convincing a judge to diverge from the law would take stellar advocating on your part, so it’s best to confine your arguments to those that fit within existing law.


    However, if Congress disagrees with a court’s decision, it can usually pass a new law that contradicts it. (This isn’t true if the case interprets the Constitution because Congress’s power to legislate can’t conflict with the Constitution.) For example, Lily Ledbetter sued her employer, claiming that it had discriminated against her by paying her less than her male peers. But the Supreme Court held that she had filed her suit too late, and upheld the trial court, which had thrown the case out. (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, 510 U.S. 618 (2007).) The Court decided Ledbetter hadn’t met the legal requirement to bring her claim within 180 days, because the decision to pay Ledbetter less had happened many years before. Ledbetter argued that each time she received a paycheck for less than her peers, it was a “continuing violation” of the law, so the 180 days started to run from when she received her last paycheck. Even though the Supreme Court disagreed with Ledbetter, Congress passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act shortly thereafter, taking Ledbetter’s side. Now, employees in Ledbetter’s shoes have the benefit of the act. Without it, courts would be required to treat those employees the same way the Supreme Court treated Ledbetter.

    Administrative Regulations

    Both the federal and many state governments have administrative agencies that work in specific areas of law—for example, the U.S. Department of Labor oversees the wages and working conditions of the nation’s workers. These agencies are created by Congress and state lawmakers, but are under the leadership of an executive branch—either the president or a governor. The agencies are given the authority to adopt regulations that specify how certain laws will be carried out. While Congress passes laws that provide the framework for how the law is implemented (an enabling statute), regulations often provide detail, frequently based on the experience and feedback from citizens who have questions about the law. For example, while a mileage reimbursement rate is part of federal law, the amount of that rate is set each year by the IRS.

    Local Ordinances

    Some areas of the law aren’t covered by state or federal law, or at least aren’t covered completely. In that case, local bodies like city councils or county boards have the authority to regulate. You may have come across local ordinances if you have needed a building permit or have questioned zoning laws, for example. Often, these ordinances are enforced and regulated by the bodies that create them, and there are options to resolve disputes that don’t involve the court system—for example, appealing a decision by the local planning commission might require a hearing before the commission, rather than going to court.

    State Versus Federal Law

    The law comes from more than one source. The primary sources are state law and federal law, though as we’ve explained, local bodies regulate some areas. Describing the difference between state and federal law could send us into a long-winded explanation of constitutional principles, but we’ll try and keep it simple.

    The main legal text that creates federal law is the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution lays out several specific areas that the federal government regulates fully, without state intervention—for example, maritime law. Then there are areas the federal government is allowed to regulate. And finally, the Constitution says that states can regulate areas that the federal government doesn’t regulate.

    Of course, what falls within each realm has resulted in a lot of judicial interpretation and opinion, and there are many areas that are regulated by both state and federal law. The general principle, however, is that certain areas—federal taxes, immigration, and bankruptcy, for example—are governed solely by federal law. The areas the federal government doesn’t regulate—such as landlord-tenant law—are primarily regulated by the states.

    Issues Covered by State Law

    Each state has its own set of statutes, as well as common law. Most states have laws regulating the following areas: child custody, conservatorships, contracts, corporations, crimes (in most cases), divorce, durable powers of attorney for health care and financial management, guardianships, landlord-tenant relationships, licensing (businesses and professions), living wills, motor vehicles, partnerships, paternity, personal injuries, probate, property taxation, real estate, trusts, wills, workers’ compensation, and zoning. Except in rare cases (for example, the federal government regulates disclosure of lead-based paint hazards in residential rentals), federal law will not cover these issues.

    Issues Covered by Federal Law

    For most of our country’s history, federal law was limited to court interpretations of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the topics that Congress is specifically authorized to address under the Constitution, such as the regulation of commerce and immigration. But as courts have interpreted the Constitution to allow the federal government to regulate more areas, federal law might control a broad range of social welfare, health, and environmental issues.

    Federal law generally controls areas like agriculture, bankruptcy, copyright, customs, food and drug regulation, immigration, interstate commerce, maritime activity, patent, Social Security, and trademark.

    Issues Covered by Both State and Federal Law

    A large number of legal areas now involve both state and federal law. Federal and state governments are concerned about environmental law, consumer protection, and the enforcement of child support statutes; and the Constitution doesn’t limit who can do what.

    This is primarily true because the Constitution authorizes Congress to spend money for the general welfare, and it creates programs under which federal funds are offered to state governments under certain conditions. (Usually, states must meet conditions and contribute financially too.) A good general rule is that if federal funds are involved, at least one element of federal law is at play.

    When states participate in one of these programs, typically, federal law gives some latitude in how the program is conducted, so states pass their own laws and regulations to govern the operation. Of course, courts interpret these statutes and regulations to create common law on the issue.

    Areas covered by both state and federal law include consumer protection, criminal law, employment, environmental protection, health law, labor law, occupational safety, subsidized housing, taxes, transportation, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits, and welfare law. If you have a problem that is affected by both federal and state law, you might have to look to both state and federal law resources to get a firm handle on your problem. We’ll explain more about how to do that in Chapter 4.

    The Court System

    As explained above, when drafting opinions that interpret the law, judges are bound by other judges’ opinions. But judges don’t have to follow every prior opinion interpreting a statute. Courts are arranged in a certain hierarchy, which makes judges bound by the decisions of only those higher up in the hierarchy.

    How Courts Are Structured

    Both state and federal courts are structured similarly. If you wish to bring a lawsuit, you will usually file a suit in the trial court. This might go by one of several different names—for example, the superior court, the municipal court, or in New York (confusingly enough), the supreme court. But the function of this first court is the same: Everything up to and including a trial will happen here. For the most part, trial courts do not issue opinions that other courts are required to follow.

    After the trial court, the next level up is called the appellate court. If you reach a final resolution in the trial court—for example, the judge rules against you—and you believe the decision is wrong, you have the right to appeal the decision. In most instances, the appellate court’s role isn’t to start your trial over, hearing the evidence again. Instead, it will look at what the trial court did and decide whether it made any mistakes. Appellate courts often issue opinions, and those opinions are binding on the trial courts below them within the state.

    The highest court is usually called the supreme court. In states without an intermediate appellate court, appeals go straight to the supreme court of that state.


    Most Cases Don’t Go to Trial

    Even though our court system is set up to decide cases at trial, this isn’t what happens in the vast majority of disputes. Here are some of the most common reasons why:

    • Charges are dropped. In criminal cases, prosecutors might decide not to pursue the case for several different reasons—they find new evidence that changes their minds, they do not think they have enough evidence to convince a jury, or they do not have the time or resources to deal with the case.
    • The parties reach an agreement. In criminal cases, this is called a “plea bargain.” The prosecutor and defendant might agree that the defendant will voluntarily plead guilty to a lesser crime with lesser penalties—for example, a misdemeanor theft charge instead of a felony. In civil suits, the parties might settle the case, perhaps with the defendant agreeing to pay something to the plaintiff, but less than was asked for.
    • The court might rule on a “dispositive motion.” To avoid wasting court time and resources, parties can ask the judge to issue a ruling or an order before the case goes to trial. Some of these rulings have the effect of ending the case, and those decisions can be appealed. We’ll explain more about dispositive motions in Chapter 9.


    The supreme court is another appellate court and will usually only decide whether the court below it correctly interpreted the law and applied it to the facts; it won’t gather new evidence or start things over. Except in certain kinds of cases—for example, death penalty cases— most supreme courts get to decide which cases they will hear. If you don’t agree with the appellate court’s decision, in most cases, you can ask the supreme court to hear your case. If it refuses, the appellate court’s ruling stands.

    There are all kinds of exceptions to this general structure. For example, in many states, claims under a certain amount are heard in small claims court, not the trial court. The trial court might act as the appellate court and can review the entire case, like new. (This is called de novo review.) Or, if you are filing for bankruptcy and your creditors challenge it, the federal bankruptcy court will decide the dispute. We can’t point out every exception to you, so you might have to do some research to figure out the procedure in the applicable court system. We’ll explain how to do that in Chapter 2.

    Federal Courts

    If you have a lawsuit that involves a federal issue or is otherwise within the court’s jurisdiction—meaning it covers an area that federal courts are allowed to hear—you can file it in the federal trial court, called the U.S. District Court. You can’t file your lawsuit in any district court, however. As we’ll explain in Chapter 9, there are rules to prevent you from showing up at a Nebraska courthouse if you and the defendant both live in Oregon, and the incident that resulted in a lawsuit took place in Oregon. There is at least one district court in every state, but often more, breaking the state into regions. District courts don’t usually issue “published” opinions (opinions considered binding on other courts), though other courts might take these decisions into account.

    Above the district court is the appellate court, called the circuit court in the federal system. There are 13 circuits, divided by area of the country. Most of the circuits are numbered, except for the DC Circuit and the Federal Circuit. The First through Eleventh Circuits all cover specific parts of the United States, while the DC and Federal Circuits are based in Washington, DC. The DC Circuit hears appeals from cases in the District of Columbia, while the Federal Circuit deals with nationwide claims based on particular areas of law, including international trade, government contracts, patents, trademarks, specific money claims against the United States government, federal personnel, and veterans’ benefits.

    The circuit courts’ decisions are binding on all the district courts that are part of that circuit, but not on other circuit courts or the district courts in those other circuits. For example, the Fifth Circuit includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. If the Fifth Circuit issues a ruling, it will bind all district courts in those three states; however, it will not be binding on the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit might consider it “persuasive,” meaning it might find the logic compelling and might consider it to craft its own decisions. But it is not bound to do so.

    Want to find the federal court where you live? Visit to locate both the district and circuit courts.

    At the very top of the hierarchy in the federal court system is the U.S. Supreme Court. Most of us have heard of the Supreme Court, and maybe even some of the major cases that have come out of it, like Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, and Bush v. Gore. The Supreme Court has nine members appointed for an unlimited term by the United States president. As appointees who don’t have to worry about reelection, the Supreme Court is supposed to be less politically biased than the legislature or president.

    Except for “appeals of right“—those situations in which parties have an automatic right to Supreme Court review—the Court chooses which cases it will hear. Very frequently, the Court will select cases involving conflicting opinions in the circuit courts. So if the Ninth Circuit says it’s okay to do something and the First Circuit says it isn’t, the Supreme Court might issue a rule that will bind both. All federal courts must follow the Supreme Court’s decision.

    State Courts

    Most state court systems follow a similar structure to the federal system. Usually, the only state court opinions published are those issued by appellate courts, including the state’s supreme court.

    It’s important to recognize that state court opinions don’t generally bind federal courts, and vice versa. This makes sense. For the most part, federal courts are dealing with federal law issues, and state courts are dealing with state law issues. So neither judicial system tells the other how to interpret its own laws.

    But this gets tricky when state or federal court systems must interpret each other’s laws. This happens, for example, when both state and federal issues are part of a single lawsuit. Let’s say you believe your employer discriminated against you based on your race. You might file a lawsuit alleging that the employer violated federal and state antidiscrimination laws. But it wouldn’t make sense to have two different cases, in two different courts, with two different judges. So you are permitted to bring both claims in one place.

    If you choose state court, the state court will have to apply federal law to decide whether your rights under federal law have been violated. If there’s an issue of federal law that the judge must interpret, the judge will turn to federal law to find the answer, not state law. In that case, the judge is bound by federal law.

    We hope you enjoyed this sample. The complete book is available for sale here at


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