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Legal Research Starting Points: Identifying Need

Determining 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'll likely need to use different sources than if you’re writing a research paper. 
  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, statute section, or regulation?
  3. What is the topical area 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?
  5. Is the matter substantive or procedural?
  6. Is the matter civil or criminal?
  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?
  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 found in 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 statute citation?
  10. Do you know approximately 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?)

(Adapted from document created by Karen Wallace, Circulation/Reference Librarian at Drake Law Library.)



Tracking Research

These documents each provide a worksheet which may help you keep track of progress on your research.


The list below gives some examples of the types of information you would find at each level.

Federal law
Cases that interpret the U.S. Constitution.and those involving rights under treaties, foreign states, and foreign nationals.
Crimes under statutes enacted by Congress.

Most cases involving federal laws or regulations (for example: tax, Social Security, broadcasting, civil rights)
Matters involving interstate and international commerce, including airline and railroad regulation.
Cases involving securities and commodities regulation, including takeover of publicly held corporations.
Admiralty cases.
Food and drug regulation

Native Americans 

Patent, copyright, and other intellectual property issues.
State law disputes when "diversity of citizenship" exists.

State law
Crimes under state legislation.
State constitutional issues and cases involving state laws or regulations.
Family law issues.
Real property issues.
Most private contract disputes (except those resolved under bankruptcy law).
Most issues involving the regulation of trades and professions.
Most professional malpractice issues.
Most issues involving the internal governance of business associations such as partnerships and corporations.
Most personal injury lawsuits.
Probate and inheritance matters.
Most traffic violations and registration of motor vehicles.
Contracts, domestic relations, durable powers of attorney for health care and financial management, motor vehicles, personal injuries, property taxation, worker’s compensation.

Both state and federal
Federal constitutional issues.
Crimes punishable under both federal and state law.
Certain civil rights claims.
"Class action" cases.
Certain disputes involving federal law, i.e., 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.

Adapted 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).  Additional information available from the U.S. Courts website.