What kinds of information can you get when you do legal research?

 **** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Every branch of the government makes law.  

1. Statutes are written by the legislative branch of government.
2. Cases are decided by the judiciary branch of government.
3. Regulations are made by the executive branch of government.

The notes at the end of each of these blog posts show examples of all of these kinds of law.  Statutes, cases, and regulations are known as “primary law” because they are written by the government. There are also good “secondary” sources that are clearer to read and easier to navigate than the primary sources. It is usually a good idea to begin a legal research project by hunting through the secondary sources and, from those, getting leads for what to seek in the primary law.

Secondary sources include legal encyclopedias such as American Jurisprudence (called “Am Jur”) and Corpus Juris Secundum (known as CJS) which are both organized in alphabetical order by topic, just like most encyclopedias. At the end of each set is an index where researchers can look for a particular word or issue to find out where it fits within the main alphabetical topics of the set. Some states have their own legal encyclopedias. Other commonly used secondary sources are law journals which publish long detailed descriptive articles and have lots of footnotes leading to additional information. At public libraries, law journals might be available in social sciences databases for convenient searching.

It is almost always possible to identify at least one entire book about any legal subject. The public library might not have the particular books you need, but the county law library might have them.  If you cannot get to the county law library, as if your public  library can borrow it from another library which does have it. This procedure is called interlibrary loan. It is a service that public libraries typically provide to patrons with a library card. A homeless patron who, because of the lack of an address, does not have a library card can sometimes arrange an alternative method of obtaining interlibrary loan books though he won’t be able to remove them from the library.

The internet, as is obvious from this blog’s footnotes, has a wealth of freely available legal information. Nearly every state and federal agency, legislature, and court has its own Web site with its laws or case opinions.[i] Law libraries publish helpful online research guides with links to reliable Web sources.[ii] Bar associations and law firms publish authoritative introductions to legal issues.[iii] These types of entities are good sources of legal information. 

[i] Cornell Legal Information Institute http://www.law.cornell.edu/ and WashLaw Web from Washburn law school http://www.washlaw.edu/ and Justia http://www.justia.com/ are all reliable sources of state and federal law.

[ii] The law librarians’ resource exchange has a good collection of research guides http://llrx.com/. NYU’s research guides are at http://www.law.nyu.edu/library/research/researchguides/index.htm. The Washington State Library has research guides at http://www.courts.wa.gov/library/index.cfm. A terrific non-library site, the University of Pittsburgh’s JURIST has extensive scholarly legal information links organized by topic http://www.jurist.law.pitt.edu/subj_gd.htm.

[iii] The Texas Bar Association provides free pamphlets on a variety of legal issues at http://www.texasbar.com/template.cfm?section=pamphlets. The Michigan Bar’s Online Legal Help Center http://www.michbar.org/generalinfo/libraries/selfhelp.cfm “was created to help Michigan citizens find legal information to help them work better with their attorney, and to represent themselves in some instances.” The Illinois Bar has a Web site called “The Law and You in Illinois” http://www.illinoislawyerfinder.com/publicinfo/home.html which links to useful summaries about all kinds of legal transactions. The Oregon State Bar has explanatory guides at http://www.osbar.org/public/legallinks.html. The State Bar of Nevada has law topic brochures at http://www.nvbar.org/publications/pamphlets.htm. All of the states’ bar associations are accessible by clicking on a state name in Washlaw http://www.washlaw.edu/.

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