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Basic Legal Research: Researching in Print or Online

This guide is intended to support your legal research instruction as a part of Legal Methods. It does not replace any instructions from your professor.

Researching in Print

Researching a Topic in Print

Legal research can be a long, daunting, and complex process. If you approach your research problem systematically and keep good notes through each step you will be able to find and understand the information that you need. Before starting, you will need to have good research plan, some search terms, and note taking materials. To learn more about preparing for your legal research you can click here.

Secondary Sources

If you are researching a topic of law that you are not familiar with a good place to start is with secondary sources. Secondary sources are materials that do not have the weight of law, but can guide you to the information that you will need and, if need be, can be used as persuasive materials for a legal argument. Secondary sources can also give you an overview of a legal topic and provide search terms that you might not have thought about yourself.

To begin, go to the secondary source's index and find the search terms that you thought of. This is not always a straight forward process, as different secondary sources, authors, and publishers may use different terms for the same legal concept. If you do not find the term that you are looking for, think of a similar term and try locating it in the index. Once you find the term that you need and the corresponding article, entry, or law report, read the source and take note of any cases, key cites, statutes, regulations, or other secondary sources that it lists.

For more guidance as to what secondary sources are and how to use them click here.

Annotated Statutes

After using secondary sources to gain an overview of your topic, you can begin to narrow your search for information that fits your issues and fact pattern. A solid way to go about this is using annotated statues. First determine what the jurisdiction for your legal question is going to be (You can find more help on making jurisdictional determinations here.) and then use the appropriate statute set's index or words and phrases guide to find statutes that seem to be on point. If you used secondary sources, you may have already found a statute or statutes that cover your topic and you can directly go to the statute itself.

Annotated statutes provide the text of a statute as well as notes of cases, legislative comments and history, key numbers (which are uniform across all Westlaw publications whether in print or online), secondary sources, and other statutes that cover or are associated with the statute that you are researching. Be sure to take more notes as to what you find and look in any pocket parts or supplemental volumes to make sure that you have the best information available. To find out more about researching statutes click here.

One thing to keep in mind while you are researching is that statutes 'trump' case law. Therefore, finding a statute that controls the legal issue that you are researching, if there is a statute that does so, can be crucial to your legal arguments. To find out more about the hierarchy of legal authority click here.

Case Law Reporters and Digests

Reporters are collections of cases, divided by geographical coverage, that are typically printed by Lexis or Westlaw. Along with having the holding of cases, reporters will provide head notes that each publication's editors prepare that break down the legal issues of a case. Reporters do not have a traditional index due to the nature of case law reporting. However, by using the digests associated with each reporter you can use case location tools such as case name tables and key number indexes to find the cases that you need.

To learn more about reporters, digests, and caselaw click here.

Updating your Research


After you have found the statutes and cases that you need, you have to be sure to update your sources. With statutes, what you will need to do is to return to the statute set where you found your information and check the volume's pocket part and any supplemental materials to make sure you are relying on the most current version of the statute.


To make sure that the cases that you are using are still good law, you will need to use the Shepard Citation sets associated with the jurisdiction that you are working with. You will need to locate the entries for each case in each of the set's volumes and interpret the treatment codes to make sure that the case is still valid for the argument that you are trying to present.

*****A word of warning, updating case law in print can be a time consuming and frustrating process due to the possibility of having to search a number of volumes, supplements, and update materials. If possible, use online tools such as Lexis' Sherpardize or West's KeyCite to see if the cases that you are relying on are still good for the point of law that you are using them for.*****

Online Legal Research

Researching Online 

Researching legal topics online has its advantages over using print, but it also have its drawbacks. It allows you to search a wide variety of sources quickly, but it can also return too much information using even precise term searches. If you use non-comerical sites, there is also a much higher chance of getting erroneous or intentionally misleading information. If you use pay to access sites, almost every search you do or link you click has a cost associated with it. Before starting online research, consider using print sources to gain an understanding of the topic that you are researching so that you can have search terms prepared to avoid spending too much time shifting through the information online and to minimize the costs associated with using a pay site if you choose to use them.

You will need to have good research plan, some search terms, and note taking materials before you start your legal research online. To learn more about preparing for your legal research project you can click here

General Research Strategy 

Just like when looking for legal information in print sources, if you are researching in an area of law that you are not familiar with a good place to start your research is with secondary sources that will give you an overview of the topic. For more guidance as to what secondary sources are and how to use them click here.

After using secondary sources, the next source of law to look for are statutes that apply to your jurisdiction. Statutes have legal authority than cases, so finding statutes is critical in legal research. To find out more about researching statutes click here.

Finding case law to bolster your argument is the next step in preparing your case. Case law has the weight of precedent and is used to illustrate how a legal concept or statute has been interpreted by the courts in a jurisdiction before. To learn more about caselaw click here.

After you have found the material you need, you must update your sources and make sure they are still good for the points of law that you are using them for. Updating online is best done using Lexis' Shepardize or Westlaw's KeyCite tools. These tools gather the information that you will need to tell whether the statues and cases that you are using are still good law and if there is any negative treatment of the sources you have found impacts how you plan to use them in your legal argument.

Free Information Sources 

Governmental websites can provide a good amount of information about a legal topic and are typically free to access. While any copies of statutes or cases that they provide may not be the most current, they will allow you to gather some information about the area of law that you are interested in. Be cautious and check to see if the website that you are viewing has a .gov or .org address, as these addresses are restricted to governmental or official organizations. If the website ends in .com it does not necessarily mean that the information is unreliable, but there is a higher chance that the site could be trying to appear as an official government website for commercial gain rather than providing correct information. 

Google Scholar is another tool that you can use to look for scholarly articles covering legal issues. While not all of the articles returned by a Google Scholar search are available for free access, there are typically enough free to access sources provided with a search that it makes the small investment of time in running a search worth the effort. Google Scholar is also a very trustworthy source of information since only scholarly articles are returned with its searches. Google Scholar can also be used to find the text of cases using its case search option. While the head notes, key numbers, and other research aids that are provided by other publications are absent, if you need the bare text of a case Google Scholar will allow access to most case law that is available in the United States. 

As you search for information, make sure to write down any case citations, terms of art, or statutes that seem relevant to your research. 

[*Something you need to keep in mind. While you can look for information on the Internet, you should never cite to a website as an authoritative source in a legal document. Use the official print case reporter or statute citation. If you cannot find an official print citation for the information that you relying on, there is a possibility that the information is not genuine.*]

 Pay to Access Websites

 Legal research websites such as Lexis Advance and WestlawNext offer a variety of different legal research tools that can assist you in gaining and understanding of the topic that you are researching. Using their various search options, you can find information that looks over several jurisdictions or that focuses on one particular location.

 For tutorials on how to use Lexis Advance and its features click here.

 For guidance using WestlawNext and its research tools click here.

 One advantage that pay sites have over free to access sources is that provide links to secondary materials, head notes, key numbers, and many other resources that can help you with your research. However, keep in mind that every link that you use has a cost associated with it. While this is not a concern for law students who have free access to legal databases, for practitioners the cost of using several links can become quite high. It is often a good idea to use print sources to get the majority of your information and then use pay for sites to update what you have found.