Legal Research Basics

Legal research is one of the aspects of law that a paralegal absolutely needs to be incredibly proficient in. It is also one of those things that takes time and practice to fully master. It also helps to enjoy performing legal research. It is very important to be able to find the law more than it is to know the law. Proficiency in legal research is the foundation for a successful career as a paralegal. If you cannot perform legal research tasks accurately and efficiently, you will not be a successful paralegal.

There are basically two ways to perform legal research. The first one was the initial way to perform legal research and that was to use the law library and look through books of cases written on paper. The other, and the more technologically savvy and modern is to perform legal research online using Westlaw, Loislaw or some other program. This is the choice of almost every law firm and is the quickest way to perform your research.

To be able to perform legal research the paralegal must know the sources of law in the United States. The first is previous cases or common law. Common law is defined as that body of law that develops and derives through judicial decisions as distinguished from statutes or constitution by Blacks Law Dictionary. Judges follow and use case law to determine current disputes. The concept is called stare decisis pronounced star-ee diss-eye-sis. The doctrine of stare decisis means that once courts have announced a principle of law, they will follow it in the future in cases that are substantially similar.

The next source of law is contained in constitutions and statutes. A constitution sets forth the fundamental law for a nation or a state. It is the document that sets forth the principles relating to organization and regulation of a federal or state government. In the United States it is considered the supreme law of the land. A statute, or law, is a law passed by a legislative body.

A third source of law is administrative regulations. Administrative agencies include Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FDA, OSHA and the like. The agencies perform two functions. They act as a legislature by making rules and regulations that bind us and they act as a judiciary by hearing disputes and rendering decisions.

The fourth source of law in the United States is the Executive Branch. The executive branch creates laws in three ways. The branch creates treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Secondly, the president can issue executive orders to regulate and direct federal agencies and officials. Thirdly, the executive branch exerts influence on the law through policies on enforcing laws.

These are the sources of law in the United States legal system. From these sources comes every rule or law that must be abided by. Out of all the great multitude of legal authorities, they can be classified as either primary authority or secondary authority.

Primary authorities are official pronouncements of the law by the executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch. The key primary authorities are cases, constitutions, statutes and administrative regulations. Primary sources are those created by a governmental entity. If a legal authority does not fall within one of the previously mentioned categories, it is a secondary authority.

Secondary authorities consist of legal encyclopedias, law review articles, books or other treatises dealing with legal issues, law dictionaries, annotations about the law, or expert opinions. The secondary authorities are not the law but rather provide comment, discussion, and explanation of the primary authorities and help you locate the primary authorities. Keep in mind that the purpose of secondary authorities is to explain the primary authorities and locate the primary authorities that must be followed by the court.

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Environmental Legal Research

Legal research is the process of getting information to support any legal decision-making. During legal research the main process involves finding sources of law or authority in the concerned jurisdiction. This could be both primary and secondary authority. While primary authority refers to document like a legislative act or a legal decision, secondary authority refers to the various law related authority materials that are published by private organizations, groups etc. Such secondary authorities are meant to be simple explanations of the law for the common people as found in legal encyclopedias, law reviews, legal treatise and the like. Environmental legal research has become a very expanding and interesting topic today and there are different areas of concern. Here is a small list of popular major issues.
Global climate change


Ozone layer

Antarctica preservation

Marine life conservation


Environment and population


Radioactive waste

A person doing legal research in international environmental legal research will have to be familiar with the law in different countries as the regulation and implementation of the treaty terms are at the national level. One must also know about the various international agreements and their effects worldwide. With a hoard of information being made available online and offline it becomes mandatory for the researcher to first properly categorize sub categorize the topic of research. the next step is to attribute the right treaties to the case. Some of the famous monuments to date include,
The Stockholm Conference

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

World Conference on Environment and Development

UN Conference on Environment and Development

World Summit on Sustainable Development

There are many online websites and blogs on any topic that can be chosen to do environmental legal research.

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Nolo’s Encyclopedia of Everyday Law: Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Legal Questions

As a publisher, NOLO does a great job at publishing books that allow everyone access to legal information. Most are written by attorneys, but in language that everyone can understand and benefit from. And while I still believe that there are issues where a person needs to hire an attorney, the books by NOLO allow people to do many things themselves, or to have a better understanding of things when they do hire an attorney. The 8th Edition of “Nolo’s Encyclopedia of Everyday Law: Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Legal Questions” by Shae Irving, J.D. & the editors of Nolo is a book that will help you do things yourself, and provide a general working knowledge of topics that you might want assistance with from an attorney.

The back of the books says, “Everything you ever wanted to know about the law, but couldn’t afford to ask.” While maybe not everything, this book does contain a lot of information. Obviously, in an encyclopedia type format, it does not go into depth on the topics, but for a general understanding, it does quite well, and for most people, that’s what they will need to know to make informed decisions regarding what to do next when dealing with certain circumstances, or when they just need to know what something means.

The chapters in this book cover many different topics and areas of law, including houses, neighbors, landlords & tenants, workplace rights, small businesses, patents, copyrights, trademarks, your money, cars & driving, wills & estate planning, health care directives & powers of attorney, older Americans, spouses & partners, parents & children, courts & mediation, criminal law & procedure, and the book concludes with a glossary and and appendix on legal research. As I mentioned, this book does not go into any depth on the topics. In fact, you can find entire books, and sometimes volumes of books, on the topics covered in the chapters here. (Nolo has many books on the topics in these chapters)

However, for a concise, single volume, that covers the basics, this is a handy reference. The book is organized well, and the entries are often in the form of question and answer. For instance, in the workplace rights chapter, there is a heading, “Am I entitled to severance pay if I am fired or laid off?” There is then a short answer explaining procedures and rights. The chapters also include references to websites that will provide online help, as well as other book titles that go more in depth on topics.

Overall, this is a very good book if you want a reference that contains a little bit about many areas of law. For quick, general legal questions, this book does a great job of answering them in plain English without legalese. Because the law effects all areas of our lives, this is a handy book to have to assist you with your legal questions.

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Legal Research – How to Find & Understand the Law

“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 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.

Seven: Using Case Law. This chapter actually explains what a case is, how they are published, and how cases affect later disputes. If you matter relies on case law, this chapter will help you.

Eight: Validating Your Research. I pointed out the tip earlier, and this chapter goes further to help you make sure you have “good law.” It teaches you how to Shepardize a Case, a process we lawyers use to ensure the cases we are relying on are still good. If you are trying to make a case yourself, you must be sure you are relying on “good law.” These are the kinds of things lawyers know that many laypeople don’t.

Nine: Organizing and Putting Your Legal Research to Use. One thing clerks, legal interns, and associates spend a lot of time doing is research. Once you find the information, you must put what you find in written form for those that asked you to find it. This chapter provides the basics for writing a legal memorandum. Not as thorough as the semester class most first year law students take, but good for the non-lawyer. There is a brief section about going to court and the court process and about a couple pages on finding and working with a lawyer.

Ten: Research Hypothetical and Memorandum. Maybe it is because lawyer learn by case studies and examples that this chapter provides a research problem, how to discover the facts, and then how to approach the question to research. It’s very short, so it will give the non-lawyer a little example of how to look at the law and go about finding your answer.

The book chapters stop here on page 255. The next 100 plus pages is a glossary, which a person would not need if they have a legal dictionary. Nolo actually has a simple legal dictionary that won’t replace “Black’s” but is a good resource. Then there is a short appendix on topics and an index.

Overall, I think this book could be very valuable for the person who wants or needs to do legal research but does not know where to start. If you are forced to do-it-yourself, this guide can lead the way. It is a very good description of the legal research process for those without a law degree.

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