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Getting Started With Legal Research: Strategy and Considerations

Learn to prepare for research, identify appropriate resources, and locate useful legal material.

Getting Started

Beginning legal research can be daunting task. Below are some strategic guidelines for starting your research and considerations to keep in mind.

For deeper insight into legal research, you will find the books highlighted below in the MLaw collection.

Legal Research Strategy

Step One: Plan Your Research

  • Frame the legal issues and consider the facts
  • Determine the applicable jurisdiction 
  • Generate initial keywords for search terms

Step Two: Consult Secondary Sources

  • For an overview of your topic, search Google or Wikipedia or consult a legal dictionary
  • Refine search terms using new knowledge
  • Use more specific secondary authority as you narrow your search
  • Discover what primary authority is cited by the secondary sources

Step Three: Search for Primary Authorities

  • Consult statutes, regulations, and case law
  • Search for primary authorities mentioned by secondary sources and other primary sources

Step Four: Expand and Update Case Research

  • Evaluate how cases relate to earlier relevant cases
  • Find references to relevant cases with key numbers
  • Make sure cases are still good law by using a citator

Step Five: Analyze and Organize Results

  • Determine what primary authorities are actually relevant to your facts
  • Determine what primary authorities are binding on your issue

See Mark K. Osbeck, Impeccable Research: A Concise Guide to Mastering Legal Research Skills, 2nd (2016).

Books on Legal Research and the Legal System

Considerations

Keep these factors in mind when conducting research online.


Primary Sources
Primary materials are more likely to be available online than secondary materials. The U.S. federal government has especially made a point of trying to make official documents available online. It is also less expensive to publish electronically, so many governments are moving toward online-only government publication policy.

Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are less likely to be online (for copyright, use, and cost issues). However, many law journals are now published in both print and electronic formats. 

Coverage Dates
With the exception of archival projects, most legal information on the internet is available beginning in the mid-1990s.

Citators
There are no free citators for ensuring that a law is still good. Patrons on the U-M campus can access Shepard's Citator on LexisNexis Academic.

Depth of Research
Free internet resources are likely the fastest (or only) option when looking for a single document or statistic. These resources are not as useful for in-depth legal research, such as looking for the ten best cases on your subject or making sure your case is still good law. 

Research Guides
Research guides will often list useful print and Internet resources for legal research on a given subject. They can been a good starting point for legal research on an unfamiliar subject. Online research guides are generally free and most major law school libraries have collections of research guides on their websites. Remember that local and regional law libraries may have research guides on state-specific legal research. Search online for "[subject] libguide" or "[subject] research guide" to find useful sources. 

Library Catalogs
Many law libraries now add links to Internet materials in their online catalogs. Searching a library's catalog is more exact than searching the Internet because libraries use standardized subject headings and uniform names that do not vary within a particular catalog or between catalogs. Library catalogs are also helpful because the librarians have already looked at resources and then made the decision to select that resource for their collection. Accordingly, the Internet resources linked in library catalogs will often be official or useful or both.