Legal Research: Steps to Follow
Legal research is a process. This guide gives you a general overview of the process of conducting your own legal research. Legal research and analysis is the process that lawyers use to determine what laws apply to the facts of their case, which facts are relevant to their claim, what type of remedy they can ask for in court, and what other cases might impact the judge’s decision.
The process of applying the law to the facts of your case and arguing for a specific outcome requires more training than any single guide can provide. So this guide cannot replace the expertise of an attorney, particularly when presenting the findings of legal research to a judge in court.
This article might be helpful if you:
- Have generalized questions about the law;
- Want to learn about the law before using pro se forms;
- Want to do preliminary research to decide whether to file a lawsuit or hire a lawyer;
- Have been turned down for services from legal aid; cannot afford an attorney; and have no other option but to represent yourself. If you find yourself in this situation, consider contacting an attorney for limited scope representation.
Note: Limited Scope Representation
If you plan to represent yourself, consider hiring a private attorney to provide limited scope representation, also known as unbundled legal services. This is a more affordable way to get help from an attorney in private practice. Not all attorneys offer this service, but it might be a good option for you.
The first step in legal research is to write a statement of facts. Do this to help gain a complete understanding of everything that has happened, or is happening, in your case. Sit down and write out everything that has happened so far, and everything that is currently going on. Do include facts you consider unimportant. Sometimes facts that seem unimportant can make a big difference in the court process. Revise it to make sure is accurate and reflects the facts of your case.
Make sure to include dates when each incident took place. Use those dates and your statement of facts to make a case timeline as well. On the case timeline, list dates from the time your problems started until the present day, along with the events that occurred on those dates. This easy visual reference will help you keep important dates in your case straight as you go through the legal research process.
The second step is to get an idea of the legal problem you are facing, and what your ideal outcome at the end of the legal process would be. Simply figuring out where to start your legal research can often be a very hard part of the process. It may help to sit down and write down the issues you are facing, along with your ideal outcome. Also think about what a good compromise could be.
The legal issue you are facing will guide what type of law you research. For example, if you are currently a noncustodial parent under to a court order—but would like to become the custodial parent—that means you may be seeking to modify the prior court order. Here, you have a family law issue involving modification. Thus, your legal research would be focused on family law and modification.
Finding General Legal Information
Texas Law Help (Online)
TexasLawHelp.org includes a variety of summaries, articles, self-help forms, information sheets and external links to information about many legal topics. These articles and forms are written by licensed attorneys. These 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.
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.
Law Library of Congress
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: A good place to look up case law and legal journals online
From their official website:
Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. From one place, you can search across many disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Google Scholar helps you find relevant work across the world of scholarly research.
- Click HERE for a guide to using Google Scholar for case law and legal research (from the University of Texas School of Law Tarlton Law Library)
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.
- Click HERE for a guide to reviewing case law written for law students, but which should be useful to you.
U.S. Courts Glossary of Legal Terms: A general guide to understanding common 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.
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. Click here 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.
Click here for a list of treatises recommended 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 a number of 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 that 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.
“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. For a diagram of the Texas Court system, click here.
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.
- Click HERE for a guide to reviewing case law (written for law students, but useful to other audiences).
- Click HERE for a guide to the difference between BINDING and PERSUASIVE authority (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 here:
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 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.
During legal analysis, you apply the law to the facts of your case. Once you have determined which law applies to your case, made sure it is binding and current, and have read up on it, it is time to start your legal analysis and writing.
This short article cannot tell you everything you need to know about legal analysis. Indeed, attorneys take an entire series of classes on legal analysis and writing in law school. You should consider reading a book on legal analysis and writing, whether you check one out at a local law library, buy a low-cost e-book online, or buy one at a discount book store.
Normally, attorneys will write a document known as a “legal memorandum” at this stage. A legal memorandum summarizes the facts, states the issue, applies the laws to the facts, does a counter-analysis from the other side’s perspective, and predicts what the likely outcome of a case will be. A legal memorandum is complex and tough to do on your own. Consider contacting a private attorney for help, perhaps through limited scope representation.
Once done, a legal memorandum provides you with a fundamental understanding of the law of your case at a glance. Any book about legal writing and analysis should include a guide to writing a legal memorandum.
To know what to do at each state of your case, contact an attorney in private practice for limited scope representation. You can also refer to practice guides, handbooks, and form books (also known as practice manuals).
For a general guide to the Texas civil litigation process, click the following link.
There are many methods for conducting legal research that may yield good results. The key to good research is to be patient, careful, and thorough as you read. For other legal research methods, you may consider reading through other published research guides posted by the Texas State Law Library.