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CoLPS: Introduction to Legal Research for 1L's

This guide will provide an overview of legal research and strategy for First-Year Law Students

Getting Started

Legal Research in 4 Steps

STEP 1: Read carefully, assess what you know and don't know, note jurisdiction, issues, primary law, brainstorm key issues, keywords, synonyms and phrases to search, and areas of law. 

Carefully and thoroughly go over the facts of your situation. Ask: who, what, where, when?

  • Who are the people or parties involved?
    • What group, class or status of persons is involved? What is their relationship to each other?
  • What item is involved? What is the subject matter of the dispute?
  • Where did the events take place? What is the location of the incident? 
  • When did the event/incident take place? What is the time and date of the incident?
  • What is the possible cause of action or legal theory? (Is this a tort? Breach of contract? Is there a defense?)
  • What relief is being sought? (Money damages? Injunction? Criminal penalties?)

 Create your Question Presented or Thesis Statement from the answers to your factual questions.



Legal Dictionaries: 

Legal Encyclopedias:

American Law Reports: ALR articles, called annotations, provide background, analysis, and citations to relevant cases, statutes, law review articles, and other annotations. 

Treatises--books on legal topics--are a good place to begin your research or find an answer to a question, and will help you save time by providing explanation, analysis, and tips on the most relevant primary sources. Some examples include Practice Guides: Continuing Education for the Bar (CEB) found on OnLaw, and The Rutter Group (TRG) Practice Guides, found on Westlaw. Other resources include Nutshell series, Hornbooks, and Nolo Press publications. 

Law review or journal articles are valuable for the depth in which they analyze and critique legal topics, as well as their extensive references to other sources, including primary sources.

  • In addition, many of the major databases used for primary law research can also be used for secondary source research, such as HeinOnline, Lexis, and Westlaw. 

Restatements are highly regarded distillations of common law: they restate existing common law into a series of principles or rules.

  • Restatements on LexisNexis
  • Restatements on Westlaw


Remember: Secondary sources are NOT the law itself; they can be used to persuade, educate and provide context when making a legal argument, but you must always provide PRIMARY LAW sources: Cases, Regulations, Statutes, or Constitutions. 


STEP 3: FIND PRIMARY AUTHORITY - Use secondary sources to find primary sources. (If no direct primary sources exist for your problem, use persuasive authority, i.e. other jurisdictions)

  • Statutes, Codes and Legislative History
  • Cases: Find and Update
  • Administrative Regulations and Decisions



READ the law, whether it be a case, regulation, statute, etc.

  • Determine which law is RELEVANT & BINDING
    • Same jurisdiction: Binding and mandatory authority: lower courts must follow the rule of higher courts in same jurisdiction
    • Other jurisdictions/lower courts: Courts will consider these as persuasive authority in deciding how to rule on a particular case; they aren’t required to adhere if it’s from another jurisdiction or from a lower court.
  • APPLY law to your facts
  • Make sure the law you found is still GOOD LAW – has it been overturned, deemed unconstitutional, or otherwise invalid? If so, you cannot use it to make your argument.
    • KeyCite in Westlaw
    • Shephardizing in Lexis

Put it all together and you’re done!