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Basic Legal Research Guide: Starting Points

Tips for Legal Research

(a) Analyze the facts of your problem or situation to ascertain what topics you need to research.

(b) Use dictionaries (such as Black’s Law Dictionary), thesauri or other secondary sources such as a legal encyclopedia to clarify the meaning of terms or concepts generated from analysis of the problem at hand.

    (i) Generating an accurate set of terms or vocabulary will help you search within the relevant sources.
    (ii) Within your search problem or factual situation, there are several sources for key terms:
         1) Persons and parties (e.g. individuals, corporations, public entities, etc)
         2) Item or subject matter that is the heart of the matter (e.g. injury, property, personal rights, etc)
         3) Timing and location of situation
         4) Relief sought (e.g. monetary damages, return of status, etc)
         5) Legal theories ‐ legal basis that might give rise to liability
         6) Procedural concerns (e.g. jurisdiction, valid service of process, choice of law, etc.)

(c) Take accurate and efficient research notes including complete citations for cases, statutes, or other primary source materials.

(d) Locate and read mandatory primary authority that resolves or yields good points on those issues.

A Civics Lesson

Three Branches of Government

At both the federal and the state level, there exist three distinct branches of government that work together to enact, interpret, and enforce the law. In the performance of these duties, each branch generates primary sources of law that are essential to legal research.

(a) Executive – the executive branch is comprised of the head of state (the President of the United States in the federal system) or the head of government (the governor in the state system) and the administrative agencies or departments who are charged with the administration and enforcement of laws and regulations.

(b) Judicial – the judicial branch of government is comprised of the courts. At both the state and federal level, the courts are organized hierarchically: trial courts, appellate courts, and a supreme court.

(i) Trial courts are courts of general or original jurisdiction and make determinations of law and fact, though factual determinations are often entrusted to a jury.
(ii) Appellate courts review errors claimed to have been made in the trial court and can render decisions based in law and fact or remand a case back to a trial court with specific instructions on application of the law.
(iii) The Supreme Court (the highest court) is a court of last resort. Its scope of review is limited to questions of law.


(c) Legislative – the legislative branch is comprised of the Congress (House of Representatives and the Senate) at the federal level and the Legislature (House and Senate) at the state level. These bodies are charged with enacting or making the law.

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