legal research: an overview
The purpose of legal research is to find "authority" that will aid in finding a solution to a legal problem. Primary authorities are the rules of law that are binding upon the courts, government, and individuals. Examples are statutes, regulations, court orders, and court decisions. They are generated by legislatures, courts, and administrative agencies. Secondary authorities are commentaries on the law that do not have binding effect but aid in explaining what the law is or should be. The resources available to find legal authority are vast and complicated leading many law schools to require students to take a class in legal research. See Legal education
Finding tools enable a researcher to find and interpret legal authority. Initially, many researchers turn to tools that provide summaries of a particular area of the law. Some examples are legal encyclopedias, treatises, and the American Law Reports (ALR). Law reviews and legal periodical articles provide interpretation of the law as well as detailed articles on particular legal topics. These interpretations may be found through indexes such as the Index to Legal Periodicals. Restatements provide detailed summaries of what the law generally is or what the restatement writers believe the law should be. The citations to other authorities and annotations provided in legal encyclopedias, treatises, American Law Reports, law reviews, and legal periodicals are an important element of their value in the research process.
There are also a number of specialized finding tools that enable one to search for relevant materials in primary authorities. The index volumes for statutes and regulations compilations provide a quick guide to relevant rules and regulations. There are also privately published version of statutes that are annotated. Case reporters contain the decisions in cases that have been deemed important enough to publish. Case digests enable a researcher to look up a particular area of the law and find a list of case decisions that are "reported" in relevant case reporters. If one has the common name of a law (e.g., The Lanham Act), a popular name table can provide a quick reference to where the law can be found in the statute compilation. There are also conversion tables that allow one to link a statute to the bill from which it developed and the commentary surrounding it's approval. Shepard's Citations provides references to when cases and law review articles were cited by another source.
Computer databanks have provided the legal profession with quick and efficient tools to do research. LEXIS and WESTLAW, two prominent legal search engines, provide databases that have case reporters, statutes, legal periodicals, law reviews and various secondary authorities. State and specialty law collections pulling together diverse types of authority are now appearing on CD-ROM and the Internet.