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Self-Help Legal Research Guide: The Basics

This guide is designed to help non-lawyers navigate the Missouri legal system & offers tips on how to conduct legal research, explains Alternative Dispute Resolution, and offers resources on how to find an attorney.

Where to Start

If you are just beginning to research a legal topic, consider the following questions to help clarify your information need and best starting points.

  1. What kind of use do you need to make of the information, and how much depth is needed in the answer? For example, if you’re going to court, you’re may need to use different sources (e.g., official primary sources, many of which are only available in a law library) than if you’re writing a research paper. If you use law-related sites on the Web, consider the AALL evaluation criteria.
  2. Are you seeking broad, topical information (in which case you will likely want to start with secondary sources), or are you seeking a specific case, code section, or regulation?
  3. What is the subject of the law?
  4. What terms may be relevant to the search? Do you have any words or phrases from any documents you already have that may be helpful? (See Definitions and Terminology resources)
  5. Is the matter substantive (what people’s rights and duties are) or procedural (how substantive law is applies, e.g., court rules)?
  6. Is the matter civil (the matter is often between two non-governmental parties and punishment likely to be monetary) or criminal (the matter involves the government and punishment might be imprisonment or government-assessed fine)?
  7. What jurisdictions are relevant to the research? For example, is federal, state, or municipal law needed? If it is state law, is it Missouri or another state? (See information on jurisdiction in the right-hand column)
  8. Will the needed information really be in a legal source or would another source be better? For example, a prominent trial-level case won’t be published in a reporter, but coverage of the case might be sources like newspapers and the Court TV Web site.
  9. What information is already known? Do you have part or all of a case name, the popular name of a law, or a code citation?
  10. Do you know about when the law was passed or the case decided?
  11. Where did you see the law cited or referenced?
  12. Do you need the law as it is today (with amendments and changes) or as it was originally passed?
  13. Are there any other research clues? (For example, the name of a person associated with it?)

(Created by Karen Wallace, Circulation/Reference Librarian. Derived in part from The Nebraska Library Commission’s Statewide Training For Accurate Reference (STAR) Reference Manual, ch. 9, and the Southern California Association of Law Libraries’ fifth edition of Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-Law Librarians with an Emphasis on California Law, ch. 5.)


Jurisdiction determines which court system should adjudicate a case. Questions of jurisdiction also arise regarding administrative agencies in their decision-making capacities.  Jurisdiction is important when researching a legal matter because you need to know the jurisdiction in order to know where to look.  (For example, you wouldn't look at federal level documents for information on the City of Columbia noise ordinance.) 

Jurisdiction is broken into federal, state, or local sources (but can also apply to geographic area).  The list below gives some examples of the types of information you would find at each level.

Federal Law

Admiralty, agriculture, bankruptcy, cases that interpret the U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws, copyright, crimes involving movement of people and substances across state lines for illegal purposes, customs, federal tax, food and drug regulation, immigration, interstate commerce, maritime, Native Americans, patent, postal, social security, and trademark.

State Law

Child custody, conservatorships, contracts, corporations, crimes (in most cases), divorce, durable powers of attorney for health care and financial management, guardianships, inheritance, landlord-tenant relationships, licensing (businesses and professions), living wills, marriage, motor vehicles, partnerships, paternity, personal injuries, probate, property taxation, real estate, trusts, wills, worker’s compensation.

Both State and Federal

Consumer protection, employment, environmental protection, health law, labor law, occupational safety, subsidized housing, transportation, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits, welfare law.

Local Law (e.g., County or Municipal Law)

Animal control, building regulations, city land use, emergency services, housing, parking, streets and sidewalks, traffic, zoning.

Derived from Kent C. Olson’s Legal Information: How to Find It, How to Use It (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1999) and Stephen Elias & Susan Levinkind’s Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law (Berkeley, CA: Nolo, 2007).