4 steps to conducting legal research
Legal research is a significant part of your job as a paralegal. When you visit a law library (or conduct computerized legal research), use this practical approach to working through a legal researcher assignment.
- Consult legal dictionaries to compile a comprehensive list of terms relevant to your research project.
Webster’s New World Law Dictionary (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), Ballentine’s Legal Dictionary and Thesaurus, Black’s Law Dictionary, Words and Phrases, and William Statsky’s Legal Thesaurus/Dictionary are just some of the dictionaries you can use to develop a list of synonyms, antonyms, and other relevant expressions to get you started on your research project.
- Find the proper jurisdiction for the case you’re researching.
After you establish whether your project comes under the federal or state court system, you can determine the specific level of court for your case and research the law that’s appropriate for that level.
- Dig up relevant cases and statutes by accessing the following resources in roughly this order:
- Major legal encyclopedias, Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS), and American Jurisprudence (Am. Jur.)
- American Law Reports (ALR)
- Appropriate digest topics (based on your initial dictionary research) from West’s “Outline of the Law” that lead you to the proper digests
- Primary sources of authority, like federal and regional reporters (for case law) and federal and state constitutions and codes (for rules and statutes)
- Validate the primary authority you’ve found to make sure they’re still good law.
Where to access legal research materials
The area where you live or work as a paralegal largely dictates your access to law library resources. If you live in a rural area, you may not have the same access to the massive collections of law books and legal resources that city slickers have. Even so, as a legal researcher, you can still find most of these pertinent legal resources in your public library’s law section or on law websites:
U.S. Code: If you’re researching federal matters, the U.S. Code is where you’ll find the statutes controlling matters of national concern, like the rules regarding how we elect senators and how we show respect for the U.S. flag.
U.S. Constitution: For research on constitutional cases, you need to access the seven articles of the U.S. Constitution and the amendments. You can do so in almost any library or online.
Your state’s code: You can find the rules governing your state in its volumes of statutes, which are usually part of your local library’s collection, and most states make their codes available online. Access state statutes at Cornell University Law School.
Your state’s constitution: Sometimes a case involves constitutional issues on the state level. You can access your state’s articles and amendments in virtually any public library in your state.
Your municipality’s code: If you work on matters of purely local significance, you can usually find a set of local rules in a city’s or county’s public library. Many cities and counties provide links to their codes on their official websites. To find an official website, type [city or county name] government into your favorite search engine (obviously replacing [city or county name] with the name of the city or county you need info on).
Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory: Martindale-Hubbell volumes provide a directory of attorneys and law firms in the United States and throughout the world. They list attorneys’ contact information, educational backgrounds, and areas of specialty. So, if you need to find an attorney who practices intellectual property law in Kennebunk, Maine, you just need to pull this weighty text off the shelf of your public library or go online.
Websites to help you do your paralegal job
These law websites provide a wealth of information to help you prepare for and excel in a paralegal career. Access continuing education, legal forms and precedent, and other legal resources at the following law websites.
- Hatch Education: This website provides helpful links for legal professions and a wide variety of course offerings through universities nationwide.
- The U.S. Government’s Official Web Portal: You can find links to everything governmental on this official website, including forms, laws, federal agencies, the three branches of the federal government, state governments, data and statistics, and libraries.
- Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute: Research websites maintained by law schools often come and go, but Cornell’s comprehensive site has been around forever and just gets more useful over time. Use it to find federal and state constitutions, codes (which are lists of regulations and statutes), and court opinions. Plus, you can get citation tips and ways to contact attorneys, judges, law firms, and law organizations.
- State government websites: Every state has its own website, with access to state laws, legal forms, and other resources.
- FindLaw for Legal Professionals: This site provides sample legal forms, articles, cases and statutes, job leads, and a bunch of other stuff helpful to the legal professional.
- The Center for Legal Studies: Here’s where you’ll find courses to begin or further your paralegal education
- The Paralegal Today: The magazine’s official website especially designed for paralegals has links to past articles with helpful information for legal professionals.