Law Library - Legal Research 101

Introduction to Legal Research

Commencing work on a legal research project can be an overwhelming prospect. However, possessing an analytical framework and knowledge of what resources exist is half the battle. This page is designed to give you that framework and basic knowledge.

Building a Framework

Before researching the law, you must clearly define what you will be searching for and where you will look. The following steps will assist you in building your research foundation:

  1. The first step in any research process is to gather as many relevant facts as possible. This can include gathering documents, interviewing witnesses, or even drafting a chronological narrative. 
  2. Next, you must determine which jurisdiction's laws control what you are researching. This can be local law, tribal law, the law of Oregon or another state, or even Federal law.
  3. After gathering facts and determining the controlling jurisdiction, you should generate a list of research terms. Both print and online resources often use lengthy indexes or search queries as a starting point for finding legal authority. To ensure thorough research from the beginning, you will need to compile a list of words, terms, and phrases that may lead to relevant law. You should devote a good amount of time to brainstorming these terms. The end product should be a broad range of both specific and general words relating to the facts, issues, and desired solutions you are researching.

Categories of Legal Resources

In every research situation, you need to find laws that control the issue you are researching. But before you locate such laws, you must first understand the hierarchy among the materials you will find and how they should be applied. Legal authority is divided into categories based upon whether it is binding upon a particular jurisdiction.

The first division is made between mandatory and persuasive authority. Mandatory authority is binding on the court that would decide a conflict if the situation were litigated. For example, in a question of Oregon law, mandatory or binding authority includes Oregon's constitution, statutes enacted by the Oregon legislature, opinions of the highest court above the court deciding the matter, and Oregon administrative rules. Persuasive authority is not binding, but may be followed if relevant and well reasoned. Authority may be merely persuasive if it is from a different jurisdiction or if it is not produced by a law-making body. In a question of Oregon law, examples of persuasive authority include a similar Idaho statute, an opinion of a Washington state court, and a law review article.

The second division is made between primary and secondary authority. Primary authority is law produced by governmental bodies with law-making power such as statutes, judicial opinions, and administrative rules and regulations. Secondary authorities, in contrast, are materials that are written about the law, generally by practicing attorneys, law professors, or legal editors such as law practice guids, treatises, law review articles, and legal encyclopedias. Secondary sources are designed to aid researchers in understanding the "big picture" of an area of law, and assist them in locating primary authority. Looking at both divisions in the law described above, it is important to note that persuasive authority may be either primary or secondary authority, while mandatory authority is always primary.

Digging In: Putting Your Research Terms to Work

The following steps will provide you with a basic framework for the research process:

  1. A wonderful starting point is consultation of secondary sources such as practice guides, treatises, legal encyclopedias, and law review articles. Such sources will give you a broad overview of an area of law and refer to primary authorities.
  2. Next, you should attempt to locate primary sources such as constitutional provisions, statutes, or administrative rules by reviewing their indexes or searching online for your research terms. Read these primary authorities carefully, obtain legislative history and update them if necessary, and then study their annotations for cross-references to additional authorities and explanatory materials.
  3. Next, you should find citations to cases by searching digests or online databases. A digest is essentially a multi-volume topic index of cases in a specific jurisdiction or subject area. From the digest, you can access and read cases in reporters or online. A reporter series publishes the full text of cases in a certain jurisdiction or subject area. For example, the Oregon Reports contain all published opinions of the Oregon Supreme Court. Cases are extremely useful for your legal analysis because they often elaborate or explain statutory law and/or illustrate how laws apply to specific fact patterns.
  4. Last, it is essential that you update your sources by using a citator such as Shepard's or KeyCite to ensure that an authority is still respected and has not been superseded or overruled. This will also often lead you to additional sources that may be relevant to your research.

You should end your research when you have no holes in your analysis and you begin seeing the same authorities repeatedly.

Print versus Online Sources

Living in the technological age, legal researchers have more and more resources available online. However, starting your legal research process with printed materials can often be more productive because books tend to provide more context. Some researchers also find it easier to read more carefully and thoroughly in print than on a computer screen. That being said, online research has its advantages as well. These advantages include quick and efficient search functions and the convenience of downloading or printing documents at the touch of a button. No matter which source a researcher chooses to utilize, they must ensure it is current, accurate, and published by a reputable source. Such verification can sometimes prove difficult with online resources, but is generally quite easy with those in print.

More Information

For more detailed information on legal research in Oregon, please refer to the law library's copy of Oregon Legal Research, 2nd Edition by Suzanne Rowe. This book is not available for checkout, but is located in the law library on the public research terminal desk.

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