Finding Legal Information and Reading About the Law
This article provides information on how to find general and specific legal information in Texas. It lists online and offline resources such as the Texas State Law Library, the Law Library of Congress, Google Scholar, and law libraries. The article also explains the different types of books found in a law library and how to understand legal terms using a glossary.
Finding General Legal Information
TexasLawHelp.org includes a variety of summaries, articles, self-help forms, information sheets, and external links to information about many legal topics. Lawyers review and write these articles and forms. The topics are arranged by area of law and include, but are not limited to:
- Families and Kids
- Domestic Violence or Abuse
- Consumer Protection and Debt Relief
- Health Law
TexasLawHelp’s mission is to provide free and reliable legal information to lower-income Texans. The information on TexasLawHelp can give you a general idea about the law before starting more intensive legal research. This information can also help you figure out where to start your legal research.
Finding Specific Legal Information
Treatises, handbooks, and practice guides are commonly referred to as secondary resources. Secondary resources are a good place to start finding specific legal information. They summarize the current state of the law and tell you what specific cases and statutes are important. This is where attorneys commonly start their legal research.
After looking through the appropriate secondary resources, look through the case law, statutes, and other resources mentioned by the secondary resources to do further legal research.
Before applying the law to your case, you will need to have a general understanding of the law relevant to your case, and that knowledge must be up-to-date.
In the next section, we will give you an idea of the places to find specific legal information, both online and offline.
Online Legal Research Resources
Texas State Law Library: Accessing their electronic databases online—for free. A selection of the Texas State Law Library’s databases and e-books can be accessed online as long as you have a Texas State Law Library card, number, and password. If you are a Texas resident, you can register for a library card for free and get access. Their digital collection includes legal treatises, handbooks, and practice guides. These resources explain the law and are what lawyers use to understand the law.
The Law Library of Congress is the largest law library in the world. Its Guide to Law Online has more than 9,000 links to online sources of information on government and law. The Law Library of Congress offers some research assistance and reference services on U.S. federal and state legal issues. It is also a source of links to other states' and counties' laws.
Google Scholar: Look up case law and legal journals online. See the University of Texas School of Law Tarlton Law Library's guide to Google Scholar.
The Legal Information Institute (LII) is a website run by the Cornell Law School. It provides legal information and resources, such as laws and court decisions, to the public for free.
It is not enough to just read through a case. You will need to understand why the court decided the way it did and how that affects your case. See How to Read a Judicial Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students.
Glossary of Legal Terms
Often, one of the hardest parts of conducting legal research can be understanding words commonly used in legal writing. The glossary of legal terms can shed some light on this for you as you conduct your legal research: U.S. Courts Glossary of Legal Terms: A general guide to understanding common legal terms.
Offline: Law Libraries
Law libraries are generally open to the public, with staff available to help patrons find the right kind of book to begin their research.
At the law library, you can find seven basic types of books: treatises, handbooks, practice guides, statutes, case law reporters, rule books, and form books.
If there is no law library near you, university libraries, city libraries, or county libraries may have some legal resources. Visit Law Libraries of Texas for a list of law libraries throughout Texas.
Treatises, Handbooks, and Practice Guides
Treatises, handbooks, and practice guides are commonly referred to as secondary resources. They are a good place to start your legal research, because they summarize the current state of the law, and tell you what specific cases and statutes are important. This is where attorneys commonly start their legal research as well.
- Treatises are books that provide summaries of the law by topic. Treatises may be easier to understand than a statute because treatises are usually written in less formal language. Both law students and practicing attorneys use treatises to understand the fundamental principles of an area of law.
See Recommended Titles and Treatises by the Texas State Law Library.
- Handbooks are a good secondary resource to use as well. Handbooks do a good job of summarizing the law for a specific area of the law. Some handbooks such as the O’Connors series go in-depth on specific issues concerning specific areas of the law.
For example, if you are researching an issue involving divorce, child support, visitation, and custody, you should look at O’Connors Texas Family Law Handbook. This book may be available at your local law library.
- Practice guides provide legal commentary on different areas of the law. Usually, these guides provide a shorter summary of the law than treatises. This is because practice guides are used by attorneys who already know the law but need specific information that goes beyond their basic understanding.
Because there are so many different laws, statutes are divided by topic into a collection of books (for example, in Texas, Vernon’s Civil Statutes).
Statutes are generally very complex, and may make many references to other laws found in other books. Be careful when reading a statute. Statutes may use language that seems common but has a specific meaning in a legal context. To understand a statute, be prepared to:
- Read the statute three times, and then read it again out loud.
- Make a copy of the statute and circle the words “and,” “or,” “may,” “shall,” “except,” and “excluding.”
- Assume that every word in the statute has meaning. Keep a legal dictionary on hand. Look up any word you do not know or that seems out of place.
- Note any cross-references to other statutes, sections, and cases, then read those statutes, sections, and cases as well, using steps 1–3.
You can find Texas laws online, too:
- See Texas Constitution and Statutes indexed by topic and
- the Texas Administrative Code.
“Case reporters” are compilations of cases that determine the law in a specific jurisdiction. Case law records the ways that judges have interpreted statutes and applied them to the facts of other people’s claims. Case law research depends on understanding concepts such as jurisdiction and court structure. In each jurisdiction, some courts will have more authority than others. The Office of Court Administration offers a diagram of the Texas court system.
It is not enough to just read through a case. You will need to understand why the court decided the way it did and how that affects your case. See How to Read a Judicial Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students (written for law students, but useful to other audiences). You also need to understand the difference between binding and persuasive authority, as explained in this guide from Georgetown University Law Center.
The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and the Texas Rules of Criminal Procedure establish the procedural rules for Texas’s justice, county, and district courts.
Civil procedural rules deal with how people file and present their noncriminal cases to their opponents and the court. There are more than 800 rules in this book (including rules for discovery, filing motions, presenting evidence, and requesting a jury).
The Texas Rules of Criminal Procedure are like the rules for civil procedure, but address the different standards that apply when a person is accused of a crime.
You can find online copies of the rules atTexas Rules and Standards.
Form books are also known as “practice manuals” or “litigation guides.”
Lawyers use form books to find templates for writing legal documents that will be submitted to the court or an opposing party. Typically, there is a short explanatory section before each template, but be careful because these sections do not give a full explanation of the law and are only meant to help attorneys determine whether the template is appropriate for their situation, what to include with their paperwork, and what further research needs to be done.
Because these books are written for lawyers, they use legal jargon that may make them difficult to understand, so be ready to look up unfamiliar terms in a legal dictionary.
Electronic databases such as Westlaw and LexisNexis sell subscriptions that allow users to quickly sift through electronic versions of treatises, statutes, cases, rules, and regulations. Searching these databases may require some training. Subscriptions are usually too expensive for individuals to purchase. However, if your local law library offers access to patrons, these are excellent resources for legal research. Through these databases, you can search for specific terms or read up on an entire area of law. Specific terms can be searched using the database search engine.
Lexis and Westlaw are useful for making sure that the law you are relying on is still current.
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