In this guide, learn what to do if you:
- Have general 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.
There are many ways to conduct legal research that may yield good results. Click on this guide's "Instructions and Forms" tab for more. Also read:
- Legal Research Resources for Beginners.
- Legal Research: Steps to Follow
- Finding Legal Information and Reading About the Law
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.
Common questions about Virtual Court
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 case law might impact the judge’s decision.
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 does not replace an attorney’s expertise, especially when you present legal research findings to a judge in court.
If you have been turned down for services from legal aid, cannot afford an attorney, and have no other option but to represent yourself, consider contacting an attorney for 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 an option for you.
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.
Instructions & Forms
Instructions & Forms
There are many ways to do legal research that may yield good results. The key to good research is to be patient, careful, and thorough as you read. You may consider reading through other published research guides posted by the Texas State Law Library for legal research methods.
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 ensure it 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. On the case timeline, list dates from when 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.
Also read Gathering and Presenting Evidence.
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 a court order—but you 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
- TexasLawHelp.org includes a variety of summaries, articles, self-help forms, information sheets, and external links to information about many legal topics. Lawyers and legal professionals write and review 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
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 determine where to begin 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 particular 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.
Below, we will give you an idea of where to find specific legal information 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.
- The Law Library of Congress is the most extensive 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 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 free legal information and resources, such as laws and court decisions, to the public.
- 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.
- U.S. Courts Glossary of Legal Terms: A general guide to understanding standard legal terms
- One of the hardest parts of conducting legal research is 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 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, city, 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 begin 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 beyond their basic understanding.
- Because there are so many 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 reference other laws found in other books. Be careful when reading a statute. Statutes may use language that seems familiar but has a specific meaning in a legal context. To understand a statute, be prepared to:
- Read the statute three times, and then reread it 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.
- 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 how 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 valuable to other audiences). You also need to understand the difference between binding and persuasive authority, as explained in this Georgetown University Law Center guide.
- 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. This book has more than 800 rules (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 at Texas 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 a 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 help make 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, make sure it is binding and current, and have read up on it, it is now time to start your legal analysis and writing.
This short guide cannot tell you everything you need to know about legal analysis. Attorneys take an entire series of classes on legal analysis and writing in law school. Consider reading a book on legal analysis and writing.
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 stage 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).
If you write your own memorandum or brief, you must know how to cite the law correctly. The Indigo Book can help with that.
For a general guide to the Texas civil litigation process, read Civil Litigation in Texas: The Basics.
Articles in this guide
This article explains "limited scope representation," which is one way to make hiring a private attorney more affordable.
This article provides an overview of the process of conducting legal research.
This article describes the appeals guide for self-represented people in Texas.
This article explains the basics of civil lawsuits in Texas.
This article offers information about the rules governing discovery in Texas.
This article tells you what evidence is and provides information on the evidence rules that are followed in Texas courts.
Texas legal information resources, both online and offline.