Research Strategies

Updated June 5, 2009 by Joe Cera.

This guide is intended to give basic legal research strategies for information dealing with U.S. law.

For non-U.S. research strategies, consult the Gallagher guides on:

Throughout your various research journeys, you may have the opportunity to use:

  • different formats
    • free websites
    • commercial services (BNA, CCH, LexisNexis, RIA Checkpoint, and Westlaw)
    • electronic services available on campus through the UW Libraries Research Databases
    • print sources available in campus libraries or through interlibrary loan
  • different libraries
  • different types of sources (online and offline)
    • trade journals
    • newspapers
    • newsletters
    • scholarly journals
    • books
    • primary legal materials.

This guide will give you general guidance on legal research strategies followed by some examples. These examples include researching a legal issue, a biotechnology case study, and finding government publications. It assumes that you have already done your preliminary analysis. If you have not done a preliminary analysis, take some time to consider these points before continuing.

Preliminary Analysis

  • What is the question you need to answer?
  • What jurisdiction is it?
  • What are some of the key words that you might use to look up this topic in an index or database?
  • What do you already know about the question?
  • Where do you think you’ll start?
  • How much time do you think you’ll take?


General Strategies

The exact steps you take in research will vary, depending on, for instance, what you already know and what the question is.

Situation #1: The question involves an area of law that you know nothing about.
  1. Get an overview and gather some vocabulary for search terms.
  • Kill two birds with one stone: consult a secondary source, such as a treatise, journal article, or legal encyclopedia. Searching the index for vocabulary that you already know will likely lead to other terms that are specifically useful for that area of law and that topic.
  • While that secondary source is in your hand, read through the relevant section to get an overview of the law. Note references to specific primary sources (statutes, regulations, cases, etc.).
  1. Check primary sources.
  • You will likely have some primary sources that were gathered from the various secondary sources you looked at. Using those sources and your new and improved vocabulary, start searching for other primary sources.
  • When you find relevant primary sources, look at the primary sources they cite to see if they will add anything to your research.
  • Be sure to check for all relevant authority - statutes, regulations, cases.
  1. Update primary sources to make sure they are still good law.
Situation #2: You have some background in the area, or the person assigning the issue has given you a citation to the relevant statute as a starting point.
  1. If you know a statute, try starting with an annotated code.
  • While it is not official, an annotated code will give a discussion of the section as well as caselaw or other codes that are especially relevant. Don't forget to cite to the official code when preparing your final product.
  • The caselaw gathered here can be used to find other relevant sources.
  • If it is an administrative law issue, consider looking for agency regulations.
  1. If you know a case as a starting point, then start with that case.
  • Look for cases that have cited that case (using KeyCite or Shepard's) or to the cases cited by that case.
  • You might also consider searching for relevant secondary sources that could point to other statutes and caselaw.
  • Don't forget to update!

Are you wondering when to stop?

Stop when you:

  • Keep finding the same answer.
  • Have checked all the appropriate sources.
  • Feel confident you have found the relevant material.
  • Have satisfied your supervisor's need for thoroughness.
  • Run out of time.



Researching a specific legal issue

Your preliminary analysis should give you some good starting search terms and an idea of jurisdiction issues. You might start by looking through relevant secondary sources in order to find a good explanation of the law.

Perhaps you are looking for an issue involving contracts, you might consider looking for a treatise dealing specifically with contracts. If you find one, check the index for your list of terms and keep an open mind in order to find others. There may be a reference to something directly on point for your issue with citations. The secondary source may also allow you to refine your search terms, making them more accurate.

Once you have gotten a good background on the law, you may want to head into primary sources. At this point you can dive into statutes, but annotated statutes are even better. For example, if you are researching an issue that involves the U.S. Code, try finding the issue an in annotated version of the code (e.g., USCS or USCA). For help with organization, look at the Statutory Research Checklist. If there are no statutes that are directly on point, consider moving on to caselaw. For help staying organized while researching caselaw, look at the Caselaw Research Checklist.

Biotechnology Case Study

For information about biotechnology and the law, consult the Gallagher guide on Biotechnology & the Law.

As you work on your case study, you will draw on different types of sources. For example, for information about a product, you might use scientific and technical sources, a company’s website, and news sources. When tracking the product's journey through the regulatory maze, you might use legal newsletters and federal regulations. For intellectual property issues, you might use a patent law treatise, law review articles, and federal cases. For issues of product liability, you could use other legal sources such as a research guide to product liability law.

Throughout, you might use a variety of secondary sources to give you an overview and lead you to other material. For instance, if you are starting out with a product name and know nothing about the product, you might want to begin by looking for a news story that will indicate what sort of product it is (agricultural or medical), how long it has been around, and what company manufactures it. From there you will be able to look for more detailed information -- e.g., technical articles, information about the company, and so on.

Working with the different sources, you will need to be sensitive to the different perspectives they present. For example, the description of a new biotechnology product that a company includes in its annual report to shareholders or on its website might be different from the description of the same product by an industry observer in a trade journal. A consumer group’s website or a health magazine might offer a very different view of the product.


Finding Government Publications

Try to find as much information as possible about the publication. Look for a title, author, date, and issuing body. The more you find here, the easier your search will be. Once you have gathered as much information as possible, check general or legal news stories for clues, maybe you will get lucky and an online article will have a direct link to the document.

You might consider searching on various search engines and searching the issuing agency's website for the document. You may even want to search library catalogs. When you have found your document from a reliable source, relax. For more information about Government Publications, take a look at the Gallagher guides on Finding Government Documents Today or Finding Government Publications on the Internet.


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