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What Is Legal Research?

When the U.S. Supreme Court hands down a ruling, people assume the justices base their decision on years of experience and understanding of the law. Although the Supreme Court justices know more about federal law than the average layperson, they may not know anything about the case they're ruling on. For that, they need legal research.

Legal research and writing are the heart of law practice. It isn't glamorous or dramatic. There will never be an exciting TV show about an attorney sitting full-time in a law library with a stack of old casebooks. But without legal research, there would be no law.

Definition of Legal Research

Legal research means finding answers in the law to support a legal decision or argument. Whenever an attorney makes a statement in court, they must support it with a law or previously decided case. If a law already exists or a case was decided in a particular way, other cases must follow that rule.

Types of Legal Information

There is a wide range of legal information available. Not all of it is relevant to all areas of law. The legal issue raised by your case determines the information to research. In general, state laws and regulations support pleadings and legal documents. Federal laws support legal issues that are "novel" or lack precedent.

There are three general categories of legal information:

  • Primary, or binding, law is law codified in constitutions, statutes, regulations, codes, treaties, and case law.
  • Secondary sources explain primary law. These sources are not legally binding but help understand the purpose of primary law. These include bar association articles, journals, practice guides, legal treatises, and annotations.
  • Nonlegal or supplemental sources, such as investigative articles, news reports, blogs, and other material, can support legal advice in some areas of law.

When a legal professional takes your case, they begin by researching secondary sources to see what might apply to the facts of your case. For instance, if you have a real estate dispute over property lines, the attorney might review how property disputes have been handled in your jurisdiction. Different counties may have other agencies that oversee property boundaries.

When the attorney knows what laws to research, the next step is to review primary law to find the codes and case law that will support your claims. In some cases, such as property law, attorneys must do legal research on older statutes. Property cases can depend on the laws at the time of the original deed.


The U.S. legal system is based on precedent. That means that when a case's facts and legal issues are similar to a previously decided case, the judge should follow the ruling in the previous case. There are two types of precedent:

  • Binding precedent, meaning the judge must follow the previous ruling. Decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court are usually binding precedents.
  • Persuasive precedent, meaning the judge may follow the ruling but is not required to. Most case law is persuasive precedent. If an attorney can present sufficient grounds for distinguishing a case from the precedent, the judge may rule in their favor.

Stare decisis, or "to stand by the thing decided," is a doctrine whereby judges must adhere to previous decisions. Vertical stare decisis refers to decisions handed down from higher courts. Horizontal stare decisis refers to decisions made by courts within the same jurisdiction. In general, Supreme Court and appellate court decisions carry more weight than circuit court decisions.

How To Do Legal Research

You don't need law school to do legal research. If you have a legal problem and want to know more about it, online legal research tools have made research easier for the layperson. Useful services like Westlaw, LexisNexis, and even Google can be good online research sources.

Before you jump into legal research, you should ask for some help. You need to determine the area of law you're researching. Some types of law need special research skills. An attorney should oversee tax law, intellectual property, or personal injury law. On the other hand, the parties involved can do some types of family law, such as a simple dissolution.

Steps of legal research include:

  1. Identify your legal problem. What do you need to research? Are you trying to research a title deed, or do you need to modify a child support order?
  2. Find a legal research tool that will work for you. It might be Google, or it might be an online legal research service such as FindLaw.
  3. Enter your legal issue. All legal research tools have a search function that lets you enter your query in plain language.
  4. Once you've done your secondary research, you can begin your primary research. Now, you may need legal assistance from an attorney.

How Your Attorney Uses Legal Research

If you go to a law office for help, the attorney or paralegal will do more research on your case. They will be looking for precedent and caselaw described above. Then, the attorney (or, more likely, the paralegal) will write the first legal documents in your case.

For instance, if you claim your neighbor's fence is encroaching on your property, the complaint will include a copy of your deed with the original survey lines. It will include the original plat map of the development. It will also include a citation to case law in your state about adverse possession claims for properties transferred before a certain date. After that date, the state changed the laws for adverse possession. This means your neighbor cannot claim adverse possession because the fence hasn't been there long enough. That is how precedent and legal research work.

Legal researchers carry out this research in almost every area of law. Corporate lawyers conduct legal research to determine if a proposed policy would expose the company to liability. Businesses have legal departments to research employment laws and workplace safety codes. Government agencies have their own attorneys and collaborate with freelance lawyers to assess the effect of environmental regulations. The work done with legal research is almost endless.

Learn More About Legal Research From an Attorney

You may need an attorney if you've started your research and can't go any further. If your legal issue needs more research than your research skills can manage, contact a lawyer in your area who can advise and help with your problem.

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