Definition of Legal Research
Legal research is generally the process of finding an answer to a legal question or checking for legal precedent that can be cited in a brief or at trial. Sometimes, legal research can help determine whether a legal issue is a "case of first impression" that is unregulated or lacks legal precedent. Virtually every lawsuit, appeal, criminal case, and legal process in general requires some amount of legal research.
Legal information is organized into two general categories:
- Primary Law: Binding law that is codified in statutes, regulations, and caselaw.
- Secondary Sources: Not legally binding, this type of information explains primary law and legal theory; including legal digests, treatises, journals, etc.
The U.S. legal system is based on precedent -- that is, decided court cases -- in conjunction with statutes and common law. Therefore, the function of legal research typically is to find out how previous courts have decided cases with similar fact patterns. Most legal research is now performed online. For example, FindLaw's sister company, Thomson Reuters Westlaw, provides online legal research tools you can use to look up cases and verify current law.
Terms to Know
- Opinion: The formal written expression by a court or judge detailing the reasons and principles of law upon which the case is decided.
- Parallel Citation: A citation reference to the same case printed in two or more different case reporters.
- Stare Decisis: The doctrine under which courts adhere to precedent on questions of law in order to insure certainty, consistency, and stability in the administration of justice.
- Shepardize: To look up a cases citation in Shepard's Citations in order to check the status of the case, whether it is still considered good law, parallel citations, or the use of the case in other jurisdictions.
- KeyCite: This helpful case citation tool is provided by Thomson Reuters Westlaw. You can view the history of a case, statute, administrative decision, or regulation to help determine whether it is "good law" and to retrieve citing references.
How Your Attorney May Use Legal Research
Your attorney (or a paralegal under their supervision) may review statutes, caselaw, and secondary authority before deciding how to proceed with your case. Since the law is based on precedent, caselaw with a similar fact pattern can give your attorney an idea of how things may play out in court.
Similarly, a corporate lawyer may conduct legal research in order to determine whether a proposed new policy would expose the company to liability. This may include research into building codes, employment laws, or federal environmental regulations.
Learn More About Legal Research From an Attorney
Judges often write opinions that aren't exactly easy for non-lawyers to follow. Lawmakers do the same with statutes. If you're researching a legal topic and you've hit a wall, it may be in your best interests to speak with an attorney. Consider contacting a lawyer in your area who can research the law for you and represent you in court if need be.