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Learning the Law You Need

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Self-represented litigants often do not have the time to learn a first-year law curriculum. This article will include tips for researching the law you need to achieve your goals.

Legal research can be a costly and time-consuming process, regardless of your experience with the law. Learn here how to organize and maximize your time while researching the law in your case. This article provides an overview of the legal research process, as well as resources available to the public when performing legal research. 

What are the subjects taught in law school?

Law students learn about the central topics of both federal and state law in law school. Many of the central topics are introduced in the first-year curriculum, including: 

  • Torts - injuries against a person or their property, 

  • Civil Procedure - state and federal courtroom procedures and rules, 

  • Contracts - the rules of interpreting contractual interactions, 

  • Property - the law of real estate, personal property, and landlord-tenant rules, 

  • Constitutional Law - the law of individual and government rights under the Constitution, 

  • Criminal Law - the criminal code and the process of proving a criminal case, and 

  • Legal Writing and Legal Research

Law students study these topics to prepare for the Bar Exam. Bar Exam subjects include: 

These topics serve as the foundation for legal analysis. TexasLawHelp has practical articles, guides, and forms for many (but not all) legal concerns that pro se litigants might be facing.  

Many resources on these topics can be researched at your local law library

Do I need to study all of these topics before my case?

No. In most cases, your dispute will involve the language of no more than a few of the topics mentioned above. For example, it is not usually necessary to understand the Texas Business Organizations Code in order to settle a divorce. 

You will have to determine which sources of law are relevant to your case. This means you will have to analyze your primary source of substantive law alongside the sources of procedural law.  

For example, in a family law case, you should spend your time researching the Texas Family Code, the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and the Texas Rules of Evidence. Having a grasp of these three sources will best assist you in preparing for your family law case.  

See below for more information on substantive and procedural law. 

What is the difference between “substantive” and “procedural” law?

When you are researching the law for your case, you will need to research both the “substantive” and “procedural” law relating to your matter. 

Substantive law is the part of the law that creates, defines, and regulates the rights, duties, and powers of the parties. In other words, substantive law is the law that defines your rights in a particular matter.  

Procedural laws are the rules that describe the steps for having a right or duty judicially enforced. In other words, procedural laws are the requirements for you to enforce or protect your rights as defined in the substantive law.  

You will need to know both the substantive and procedural laws that relate to your case. 

What is an example of “substantive” law?

One example of a substantive law would be your right to equal educational services as defined by Texas Education Code 1.002. This statute spells out your right to an equal education but does not offer avenues to enforce that right.  

What is an example of “procedural” law?

One example of procedural law would be the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure give you the information you need for drafting and filing a pleading, requesting the desired “relief,” time restrictions, and even the geographic requirements. These rules help you begin the judicial process to enforce those substantive rights mentioned above.  

Procedural laws also walk you through the processes for the discovery and presentation of evidence.

What kind of procedural law resources are available to me?

There are many resources available to help you research and understand the law. Many legal resources can be costly. There are, however, affordable options for researching the law.  

First, the Texas Judicial Branch offers Statewide Rules and Standards. This resource also provides a database of Local Rules around Texas.   

Local rules are the requirements for your court or region’s local practice. These rules often relate to courtroom behavior, processes, and technologies used to handle a case in your court or region. Local Rules are posted by the Texas Judicial Branch and updated regularly.  

Local rules cannot be inconsistent with state or federal law (such as the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure). If you cannot find your court’s local rules through the Texas Judicial Branch, contact your court for more information. 

What kind of substantive law resources are available to me?

The Texas Government uploads and maintains the Texas Constitution and Statutes. These resources will provide you with much of the state substantive law that might apply in your case.  

Some common substantive law statutes that might be relevant to your legal matter include: 

What is common law?

Texas uses a common-law system. Common law is the use of decisions from high courts that are binding on lower courts — a concept known as setting a precedent. Case law is derived from these past decisions made by the courts. Because the courts are always hearing new cases and interpreting the law, case law is constantly evolving. 

What is case law?

Case law is the body of law made up of decisions of court cases tried in State and Federal Courts. Courts use the principle of stare decisis (“stand with what has been decided”). This means that the Courts can use previous cases or “precedent” to help settle a dispute. Knowing how a legal issue has been decided by the court in the past can be helpful in determining how a similar case will be decided in the future.  

For more information on case law, see the Case Law Research page and review Finding Legal Information and Reading About the Law

How do I know what law applies to my case?

This is where legal research comes into play. Many times, your situation may involve a variety of substantive rights. Researching primary or secondary sources related to your matter will help you grasp the law that is applicable in your case. 

Primary sources are the written statements of law issued by the proper government entities. This includes statutory law, case law, and administrative law. Although these sources are not instructions within themselves, primary sources help you get a grasp of the law in your situation. Legal publishing companies will often publish “annotated” versions of primary sources that contain footnotes to other helpful resources on the law. Visit the State Law Library’s page on Primary Sources for help accessing online resources.  

Secondary sources are items that explain, analyze, comment on, or teach someone how to practice the law. Secondary sources are not the law itself, rather a tool for understanding the law. Some secondary sources include self-help books, legal encyclopedias, treatises, and practice guides, among others. These sources will help you identify the law you are looking for. In some cases, these secondary sources can offer template letters or forms for basic legal tasks. Visit the State Law Library’s page on Secondary Sources for help accessing online resources. 

Can I access any of the private legal resources?

Yes, even though some legal resources charge for usage, many State Law Libraries around Texas offer its residents free access to private legal resources such as Westlaw, Lexis, and O’Connor’s. These resources further analyze the substantive and procedural laws in Texas and will offer you further assistance when learning the law you need. 

Use this State Law Library Locator Tool to find what law library is nearest to you, and what legal resources they offer.  

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