A Guide to Using the Gallagher Law Library for Members of the Public: Legal Research

Updated June 20, 2014.
Prepared by Mary Whisner and updated by Rachel Turpin (2009).

The Gallagher Law Library is open to members of the public. Virtually all of the services and resources of the Law Library are available to you. This guide answers some of the questions you may have about using the Library and conducting legal research.

Is Someone Available to Help Me with My Research?

Yes, the staff in the Reference Office can help you identify, locate, and use legal materials and information. You might want to plan your visits to the Library for times when the Reference Office is open.

If you cannot come in to the Library but have access to the Internet, you can contact us by email or by phone at (206) 543-6794. Additionally, you can use the online Live Help reference or email reference services offered by the King County Law Library or the Washington State Law Library.


Can I get a law student to help me with my case?

No. Law students are not licensed to practice law and they cannot advise or represent you. If you need someone to explain the law to you, advise you about a course of action, or draft legal documents, then you should consult an attorney.

Please do not ask law students in the Law Library to help you. They are here to study or do research for classes.


Where Should I Start My Research?

It's generally a good idea to begin your research with secondary sources, like encyclopedias, books, and periodicals. These will give you an overview of a subject area. They will also lead you to other sources, including primary sources like cases and statutes.

Books in the Reference Area

Many of the most helpful basic books are kept in the Reference Area, adjacent to the Circulation Desk and the Reference Office. When you are using the Law Library catalog, you can limit your search to books that are located in the Reference Area after you have done a title, author, keyword, or subject search.

The Reference Area is a self-service collection. That is, you do not need to ask at the Circulation Desk for the book. Use the catalog to find the call number and then browse the selves in the Reference Area to find the book.

Books Written for Nonlawyers

Books are aimed at nonlawyers are generally less complicated than books aimed at lawyers and are very practical. These books may not answer all of your questions--you may need to do further research--but they are often a good starting point.

We have created a list of selected books written for nonlawyers with their call numbers in this Library. These are not all the books on their topics. Remember to check the catalog for more. Your local public library may also own books on legal topics for nonlawyers.

Books Aimed at Lawyers

Even if you are not a lawyer, you can learn a lot by reading the books that lawyers use. If you are researching Washington law, you might find Washington practice materials especially useful.

Online Sources

Several Gallagher guides provide additional useful information, including Secondary Sources and Sources of Free Legal Information on Washington State Law.

Other helpful online sources are mentioned in the section on free legal information.


How Can I Learn How to Do Legal Research?

Legal research is a complex skill. Law students, lawyers, librarians, and paralegals work hard to develop expertise. If you are just starting out, it might all seem very confusing. Take heart: it will get easier for you the more you practice. Try to approach research calmly and methodically, take notes as you go along, and read the instructions on how to use each set. And remember, you can always ask for help in the Reference Office.

For an overview of the legal research process, you might want to start with the American Association of Law Libraries' How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers, Nolo's Laws and Cases: How to Do Legal Research, or Locating the Law (2011) from the Southern California Association of Law Libraries.


The reference librarians have prepared dozens of legal research guides on a wide variety of subjects. Some of the most useful guides for novice legal researchers are:


You may also want to browse a book on legal research:

  • Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law (14th ed.) is a good introduction, aimed at nonlawyers.
    KF240.E35 2007 at Classified Stacks
  • Legal Information: How to Find It, How to Use It is an excellent text. It includes references to selected websites as well as traditional print resources.
    KF240.O365 1999 at Reference Area & Reference Office
  • Washington Legal Researcher's Deskbook 3d focuses on Washington materials, including the Revised Code of Washington, the Washington Digest, and the Washington Administrative Code. Table of Contents. Ordering Information
    KFW75.W37 2002 at Reference Area & Reference Office
  • Specialized Legal Research contains chapters explaining how to do research in different specialized areas, such as securities regulation, labor and employment law, and banking law. Updated annually.
    KF240.S63 1987 at Reference Area & Reference Office

These are just a sampling of titles. For more books on legal research, search the Library catalog for the subject heading "legal research."


We also have some videos that you can watch. A monitor/video player is available in the Reference Area and you can check out headphones at the Circulation Desk.

Legal Research Made Easy: A Roadmap Through the Law Library Maze. 1 videocassette, 145 minutes, plus manual. This video is aimed at nonlawyers. 
KF240.L427 1990 at Classified Stacks

Legal Research for the 21st Century. 9 videotapes, 551 minutes.
KF240.B374 2000 at Reference Area

  • Tape 1: The basics
  • Tape 2: Case finding and the future of cases
  • Tape 3: Citators and secondary source research
  • Tape 4: Statutes, legislative history and administrative materials
  • Tape 5: Legal research on the Internet and research strategies
  • Tape 6: International law
  • Tape 7: Foreign law
  • Tape 8: Intellectual property law
  • Tape 9: Environmental law


How Can I Find Definitions of Legal Terms?

Black's Law Dictionary is the standard legal dictionary.
KF156.B53 2009 at Reference Area & Reference Office

The Gallagher guide on Legal Dictionaries identifies additional print and online legal and bilingual dictionaries, as well as abbreviations and acronyms sources.

If you find an unfamiliar word or term is in a law or ordinance, check to see whether another section defines the term. See if there have been cases interpreting the statute that help to clarify the term. Read articles or books about the topic to see whether they explain the term. The reference librarians can help you learn how to find these articles, books, and cases.


How Can I Make Sure the Information I Find is Up to Date?

The law is always changing. For example:

  • Legislatures enact new laws or amend old laws.
  • Courts decide new cases, interpret laws, and overrule or modify existing case law.
  • Administrative agencies issue new regulations.
  • Legal scholars analyze the law in new ways or come up with new theories about the law.

Therefore, whenever you are using any legal materials, you should think about how current they are.

If you are using a set of laws (called statutes or codes), check to see how it is updated. Has the legislature enacted new law?

  • Many sets are updated with pocket parts found in the back of bound volumes. Others have supplemental volumes or looseleaf supplements.
  • Most sets of statutes are updated further with session laws or commercial legislative services.

If you are researching case law, check to see if your case has been appealed (direct history) or affected by other cases (indirect history).

  • Use Shepard's or KeyCite, two online services available on the three computers in the Reference Area. Ask a reference librarian for assistance.
  • Use secondary sources, digests, and other case-finding tools to see if there are later cases on your subject.

If you are using a bound treatise (a book or set of books on a legal topic, such as real property or contracts), look at the copyright date. Does the volume have a pocket part in the back? Is there a later edition?

If you are using a looseleaf treatise, look at the date of the latest supplement. Many sets will have a page in the front indicating when they were last updated.Many sets indicate the date on each page. (Some of this library's looseleaf treatises are no longer updated regularly!)

Remember to check how current online sources are too! Look for information on when a website or online database was last updated.

No matter what you are using, think about how the law could have changed since it was written! If you need help using the Library, ask a reference librarian!


What Are Legal Periodicals & How Can I Find Them?

Articles in law reviews, legal newspapers, and bar journals are good sources for obtaining an overview of the law of a particular subject and they usually include footnotes that refer you to important laws, cases, and other legal material.

Law reviews are scholarly periodicals usually published by law schools. Articles are generally long and heavily footnoted. The law reviews published in Washington State are:

  • Gonzaga Law Review
  • Seattle University Law Review (formerly University of Puget Sound Law Review)
  • Washington Law Review (from the University of Washington School of Law)
  • Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal (also from the UW)

Legal newspapers are published daily (for example, Los Angeles Daily Journal), weekly (for example, National Law Journal), or monthly (for example, American Lawyer). The local legal newspaper is Washington Journal, which is published weekly. Articles in legal newspapers often profile attorneys, law firms, or judges, report on recent cases, and discuss practice issues. They are usually shorter and less scholarly than articles in law reviews.

Bar journals are the magazines published by bar associations. They include news of the association and members and they usually include articles about law practice and different legal topics. The bar journal for the Washington State Bar Association is Washington State Bar News.

Periodical Indexes

If you are looking for periodical articles on a particular topic or by a particular author, you might use a periodical index.

The Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals is also available on Library computers and, if your Internet access is from the University of Washington, via the UW Libraries Research Databases. IFLP indexes law journals from foreign countries (excluding the UK, Canada, and Australia) and English and American journals that are about foreign and international law. Periodical Locations

To discover where a periodical is shelved, search by title in the Law Library catalog.

Most legal periodicals are shelved in alphabetical order by title in the Compact Stacks on floor L2. 

Some specialized periodicals have call numbers and are shelved in either the Classified Stacks or the Compact Stacks.

We subscribe to some legal newspapers in paper and keep them in the Reference Area. These include American Lawyer, Legal Times, and National Law Journal. We also get these in microfiche and, when the microfiche version arrives, we discard the paper version. The microfiche is kept in cabinets in the Reference Area.

We subscribe to some legal newspapers only in microfilm. These include Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and Los Angeles Daily Journal. The microfilm is kept in cabinets in the Reference Area, along with the microfiche and microfilm readers and printers.

Again, you can always find a periodical's location by using the Law Library catalog. Many legal periodicals are available online. Check the EJournals list for specific sources.


Where Can I Get Free Legal Information?

The Gallagher guide on Free Law Online will connect you to free Internet sources of Washington State and U.S. laws, regulations, and cases. We also have created a page on Sources of Free Legal Information on Washington State Law, which supplements the information found on Washington Law Help and lawforWA.


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