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Basic Legal Research

Databases, encyclopedias, and search techniques for legal research.

Library Research Guide

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What This Research Guide Contains

Welcome to Basic Legal Research. This research guide is presented as a starting point to your legal research. It will highlight library resources, demonstrate how to use and locate them, and suggest some search strategies. If you get stuck, please do not hesitate to email for help or use our instant chat service — Ask a Librarian.

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Identify Your Target

Determine what you are looking for before you begin your search. A legal case? A law review article? A statute? Federal or state? Once you've sorted these details out, it will be easier to decide what resources to investigate.

Identify Your Search Terms

Just as with any research assignment, developing effective keywords is important. Try stating your research topic as a sentence. 

EXAMPLE: Can a child divorce his/her parents?

First, consider the important words of the research question:  child, divorce, parents. Then think of other ways to describe those terms:

child — minor, adolescent, youth

divorce — separation, annulment

parents — father, mother, guardian

So, you've identified your search terms. Now what? Well, are you looking for legal cases, statutes, or legal articles about your topic?

Primary vs Secondary Sources

What is a primary source?

Very simply, a primary source is a law passed by the relevant authority (legislatures, government agencies or courts).  These include, but are not limited to, constitutions, statutes, opinions, city ordinances, and administrative law.

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources do not have the force of law.  They explain the law and include treatises, encyclopedias, law reviews, and hornbooks.