Legal Research Starting Points

Posted Oct. 20, 2008.
Prepared by Cheryl Nyberg & Mary Whisner for Theo Myhre's Legal Analysis, Writing & Research, A506BC.

How do you begin to research a topic with which you are familiar? How do you move from secondary sources to primary sources of law? This guide is intended to help answer those and related questions. It includes links to other legal research guides on the Law Library website and provides a sample checklist of research steps you might consider.

Preliminary Analysis

Before you begin searching, take a few minutes to review the hypothetical. What do you know? What do you need to discover?

  • What are the relevant facts?
  • What words, phrases, and legal terms of art might be used to describe the facts and/or the legal issues involved?
  • What are the legal issues?
  • What is the jurisdiction?
  • What is the question you must answer?

Start with Secondary Sources

Many expert legal researchers begin a new project by consulting secondary sources. Secondary sources describe, analyze, criticize, and discuss the law. They include citations to the important statutes governing a topic and cite to the leading cases in the area. The Gallagher guide on Secondary Sources describes several of the most useful categories of secondary sources.

Many secondary sources are jurisdiction-specific. The Gallagher guide on Washington Practice Materials covers types of secondary sources and specific titles for Washington State legal research. See also Chapter 4, Washington Practice Materials, in the Washington Legal Researcher's Deskbook 3d. KFW75.W37 2002 at Reference Area & Reference Office.

You might find this article useful: �Here There Be Dragons�: How to Do Research in an Area You Know Nothing About, 6 No. 2 Persp: Teaching Legal Res. & Writing 74 (1998). Westlaw

Secondary Source Research Checklist

Designing one list of sources for hundreds of legal topics is a tall order. The following is a preliminary list of major categories of secondary sources that a novice legal research might consider:

bullet American Law Reports, 3d-current series (ALR). KF132.A53 at Reference Area OR Westlaw (ALR)
American Law Reports, 1st-current series. KF105.A542 at Reference Area or Westlaw (ALRfed)
bullet Nutshell, hornbook, casebook, or other brief guide to the subject

bullet Treatise(s). See the lists at Harvard, Arizona State, or Pace and then check the Gallagher Law Library catalog for our locations and call numbers. See also treatises on LexisNexis and/or Westlaw by topic or practice area.
bullet American Jurisprudence, 2d ed. (AmJur). KF154.A42 at Reference Area, LexisNexis, or Westlaw (AmJur)
Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS). KF154.C562 at Reference Area or Westlaw (CJS)
bullet State encyclopedia or practice materials. See Washington Practice Materials.

bullet Law review articles. Search LexisNexis (US Law Reviews and Journals, Combined), and/or Westlaw (JLR).

bullet A subject- or jurisdiction-specific legal research guide. The Gallagher Law Library website has more than 125 legal research guides and hundreds more are available in print and on the Internet.
bullet Consult with a reference librarian about other relevant sources.




Research Log

Keep track of the sources you have consulted in a research log. You might want to record:

  • Author, title, edition, and publication year
  • Library call number and location (so you can avoid looking it up again in the library catalog)
  • Words and phrases in the table of contents, index, or text that deal with your research topic
  • Citations to constitutional provisions, statutory and/or regulatory sections, cases, and other primary sources (when you notice the same sources cited repeatedly you know you are on the right track)
  • Other secondary sources that you want to consult
  • Database name or identifier from an online service
  • Notes about information found in each source
  • Date when you searched each source

Recording this information serves several purposes:

  • Helps you avoid duplication
  • Provides a list of words and phrases that are useful in searching other materials
  • Facilitates construction of Bluebook citations
  • Speeds your return to a specific resource as your research progresses
  • Allows someone who is familiar with the topic to confirm that you searched the relevant sources OR that you missed critical sources

See Develop the Habit: Note Taking in Legal Research, 4 Perspectives: Teaching Legal Res. & Writing 48 (1996). Westlaw

Here is an example of a research log.


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