Basic Legal Research-A Mini Research Class

Basic Legal Research-A Mini Research Class

There are many ways to tackle any research problem. When a person is new to legal terms and the types of books and materials in a law library, the research process may seem almost too difficult. The law may even seem like a foreign language to you. This mini research guide is intended to help you learn the legal research process, with guidance on where to start and what resources to check as you research your legal problem. The sections of this mini-class are linked below so that you may skip to whatever section interests you.

Learning How to Research
Finding Definitions for Legal “Language”
Using Self-Help Books and Websites
Other Starting Points (Encyclopedias, Practice Guides, Treatises, Loose-Leafs)
Looking for Codes (Statutes) and Constitutions
Finding Administrative (Regulatory) Law
Finding Cases (AKA opinions)-The Judge Made Law
Finding the Forms You Need
Court Rules
The Importance of Updating Your Research
A Few Other Sources to Consider
How to Cite Your Research
When to Stop Your Research

Learning How to Research

Those new to legal research begin with books and websites designed to teach legal research. These types of books help the new researcher learn how to think about their legal problem and define their issues using the correct legal terms.

Legal research guides are useful for helping the beginning researcher decide what court, government agency, or jurisdiction has the power to hear and decide his or her legal problem. Is the legal problem presented one that federal, state, or local law governs (or perhaps a combination of any or all of those laws)? These resources also provide a good introduction to the types of sources available to the legal researcher.

Many of the county law libraries will have some of the print resources listed below to help the beginning researcher understand the research process. Other good online sources are also listed for those of you who live in an area where accessing a law library is difficult.

Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law (11th ed. 2003, Nolo Press)
How to Find the Law (1989, West)
Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-Law Librarians, With an Emphasis on California Law (4th ed. 2001, SCALL). Available in print and online at
How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers. Available online at

Finding Definitions for Legal “Language”

As you begin your research, you may come across words that are unfamiliar and abbreviations that are strange. County law libraries have materials available to help you with the terminology and abbreviations used in the law.

Some print and online sources for you to consult when struggling with the words and abbreviations used in the law are listed below.

Black’s Law Dictionary (7th ed. 1999, West)
Law Dictionary for NonLawyers (1985, West)
Bieber’s Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations (5th ed. 2001, Hein)
Nolo’s Everybody’s Legal Dictionary available online at
FindLaw’s “Search the Legal Dictionary” available online at
Peter Martin’s Basic Legal Citation available online at

Using Self-Help Books and Websites

Self-help law books are often the best place for a non-lawyer to start their legal research. These types of books provide an overview of the law on a particular topic; a discussion of important cases and statutes; forms and rules; and, guidance on how to proceed with your own case.

Nolo is the primary publisher of these types of self-help law books and you will find their titles in county law libraries and many public libraries. Some of Nolo’s most popular self-help books are those on divorce, fighting traffic tickets, landlord/tenant disputes, and small claims court.

For print titles check your law library or public library catalog by subject or simply ask if there are any self-help books on your area of interest.

Also check the self-help links provided by this website. One major self-help link for California legal research is the California Courts Online Self Help Center.

Other Starting Points (Encyclopedias, Practice Guides, Loose-Leafs)

Legal researchers use encyclopedias specific to law. They work just like the encyclopedias you may be familiar with in your public library, although they are located only in the larger law libraries in the state. If you are not successful in finding a self-help book on your particular problem, you may want to consult a legal encyclopedia for a broad overview of your topic and references to cases and statutes. For coverage of law on a nationwide basis consult American Jurisprudence 2d or Corpus Juris Secundum. California law is covered in an encyclopedia titled Cal Jur III and in the Witkin series on California law, evidence, criminal law, and procedure.

Practice Guides and loose-leafs are the books you will find only in a law library. These types of books are designed for use by attorneys in their practice of law; however, they are very useful for others interested in an area of law. These books detail the law, the forms, and the information needed to pursue a specific type of case through the courts. The information in these books is updated frequently and often they are referred to as loose-leafs as they are in binders designed to be updated frequently by the insertion of new material. Major publishers of such books are CEB, Rutter Group, West Group, CCH, and Lexis/Nexis.

Almost all of the practice guides used by California attorneys will be found in the larger public law libraries in the state. In some of the smaller county law libraries there may only be a few of these resources available to you.

Some of the more popular titles used by self-represented litigants in California include:

California Family Law:Practice and Procedure (Matthew Bender)
California Practice Guide: Family Law (Rutter Group)
California Landlord-Tenant Practice (CEB)
California Eviction Defense Manual (CEB)
Wrongful Employment Termination Practice (CEB)
California Conservatorships and Guardianships (CEB)
Civil Procedure Before Trial (Rutter Group)
California Practice Guide: Personal Injury (Rutter Group)

This type of law resource is not found for free online. However, there are some free websites that do try in some manner to provide detailed legal information organized by subject. Try some of the following sites for general legal research help.

California Courts Self-Help Center at
Nolo’s Law Encyclopedia at
FindLaw’s subject guides at
Cornell’s Legal Information Institute “Law About” Guides at

Looking for Codes (Statutes) and Constitutions

Once you have reviewed the sources listed above, you will have a good idea of where to look for the statutes or codes that may impact your legal question. Many self-help books and practice guides will refer you to the code sections you should read.

If your issue is one at a local level (such as zoning, parking, noise, etc.) you may find yourself looking for your local city or county ordinances (code). If you have learned that your matter is largely one left to state law (for example, real property, divorce, contract) you will want to find your state statutes. Federal legal issues will require a review of the United States Code.

The terms codes, statutes, and legislation are often used to describe the same thing. Codes are the enactments of a governmental body, be it a legislature, congress, or city council. Codes are generally arranged by subject, and numbered with sections and/or titles. All are indexed and many are annotated. Annotated means that the codes contain not only the text of the law, but also brief summaries of judicial opinions that interpret the codes, legislative history and analysis, cross references, and more.

County law libraries and many public libraries in our state will have print copies of the state statutes of California and local ordinances. Some libraries may also have the United States Code in print.

Finding California Codes:

In print
West’s Annotated California Codes (West)
Deering’s California Codes (Lexis)

California Code online at

The print annotated California codes are divided into 29 topic areas plus the California Constitution. Within each topic area, the codes are given section numbers. A topic is indexed by subject and the entire code has a general subject index at the end. There is also an alphabetical table (popular name table) if you know the name of an act (ex. Brown Act), but do not know where it is located in the code. A code abbreviation looks like this:

Cal. Fam. Code §300 (refers you to the Family Code, section 300).

The online version of the California Code contains the text of the law with no annotations. The code can be searched by keyword or browsed in a table of contents format.

Finding United States Code sections:

In print
United States Code Annotated (West)
United States Code Service (Lexis)
United States Code (official, government publication)

United States House site at
Cornell’s Legal Information Institute at
GPO Access at

Many law libraries and some public libraries subscribe to one of the print versions of the United States Code. Federal depository libraries in your area (many academic libraries) may also have a copy. The print versions have multi-volume general indexes, tables of acts by their popular name, and are updated frequently. The West and Lexis publications are annotated with valuable information for the researcher. The code is organized by title number, topic, and section number. A code abbreviation looks like this:

18 U.S.C.A. §2112 (Title 18, United States Code Annotated, section 2112).

Finding your local laws:

In print
Check your local law library, city or county clerk’s office, or public library for city or county ordinances or codes

MuniCode at
Quality Code Publishing at

Finding Administrative (Regulatory) Law

The legislative branch of government delegates powers to government agencies to enact laws and regulations known as administrative or regulatory law. These same agencies also have the power to hear disputes and enforce their rules and regulations. Think of agencies such as the Social Security Administration or the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Many of the laws that come out of these agencies are not found in the codes listed above. Instead they are published in the form of codes of regulations or administrative codes.

These administrative codes are indexed by subject and organized by either subject or title number and then section. Examples are provided below.

Finding California’s state administrative code:

In print
Barclay’s Official California Code of Regulations (West)

The print administrative law of California is organized into 28 titles with chapters, subchapters, article numbers, and section numbers. Title 24 is a separately copyrighted portion containing the state building codes. Codes can be found by title and section number, subject using the subject index, or by agency using the agency index.

California Code of Regulations at

The online version is essentially identical to the print version. It may be searched by agency, table of contents, keyword search, or by section number and title.

Finding Federal administrative law:

In print
Code of Federal Regulations
Federal Register
Various print reporters of administrative opinions

Code of Federal Regulations at
Federal Register at
Links to Federal Agency opinions at

The Federal Register is a daily publication of regulations and rules made by federal agencies. The Code of Federal Regulations codifies what is first published in the daily register. The code is in 50 titles with section numbers and it is updated quarterly.

Finding Cases (AKA opinions)-The Judge Made Law

While researching in practice guides, self-help books, and viewing the annotated codes, you likely will have noted several references to cases that you want to look up because they are similar to your legal research issue and may help (or hurt) your own case.

The references you have will look something like this:

Hutcherson v. Alexander, 264 Cal. App. 2d 126, 70 Cal. Rptr. 366 (1968).
United States v. Dionisio, 410 U.S. 1 (1973).

These are called citations. Citations provide you with the name of the case, the volume of the book in which it is found, the name of the book, the page number, and the year of the case.

Where do you find case law? If you are looking for print cases, you will likely find them only in law libraries. Cases are located by using a number of tools. If you know the name of the case you can locate a table of cases that will list the cases alphabetically and give you the volume, page and book where the case is located. If you have the citation you can simply find the correct set of books, pull the volume and turn to the page. If you are looking for cases by topic you will want to use a tool known as a digest.

Digests as case finding tools:

Digests are indexes to case law and also a way to find cases by topic, name, or subject. They are organized alphabetically by subject with numbers that classify the law into topics and subtopics. Digests are published by commercial publishers who analyze cases and write brief abstracts of cases and points of law.

In Print
West’s California Digest 2d
California Digest of Official Reports 3d
West’s Federal Practice Digest

Many online services (both pay databases and the free internet) act as digests of case law. Some are mentioned below as finding tools for cases.

Finding California Case law:

In Print
California Reports (1st-4th)California Appellate Reports (1st-4th)West’s California Reporter (1st and 2d)

Pacific Reporter (1st-3d)

California cases from 1850-present (Lexis available through California Judicial Council’s website) available at
FindLaw also contains California cases from 1934 at

Finding Federal Case law:

In Print
United States Reports (United States Supreme Court)
Supreme Court Reporter (United States Supreme Court)
Lawyer’s Edition: United States Supreme Court Reports (United States Supreme Court)
Federal Reporter (1st-3d) (Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal)
Federal Supplement (1st-2d) (Federal District Court opinions)

United Supreme Court opinions use FindLaw (back to 1893) or the Official Supreme Court website. Findlaw is at

Official Supreme Court site is at

Federal court opinions (circuit courts of appeal and trial level district courts).

Finding the Forms You Need

After completing your review of all of the above-mentioned steps, you should have an idea of the statutes and cases that relate to your legal problem. You know the law. However, if you want to actually prepare some legal documents, perhaps even start a lawsuit, how do you find out what the paperwork should look like?

The practice guides and self-help books mentioned above may well give you all of the information you need to know about what paperwork is required. If not, there are a number of law books and online sites that will guide you in creating your legal documents. They are known as form books or forms websites.

In California there are sets of documents called Judicial Council forms. These are forms provided by the administrative office of the California court system. These forms are fill in the blank type forms. Some are adopted (mandatory) and some are approved (optional). These are standard forms for a variety of civil and criminal proceedings and should always be consulted to see if a form exists for your exact legal problem.

There are also a lot of other “legal forms” that are not pre-made like the Judicial Council forms. Most legal forms are created for a specific situation by using books that provide generic examples to follow. Individuals using these examples must customize and fill in specific information relating to their case.

The references and links below are intended to give an overview of some legal forms sources. Many of these print books are only to be found in the larger law libraries in the state as they are very large and expensive sets for any library to maintain.

In Print
California Forms of Pleading and Practice, AnnotatedCalifornia Legal Forms: Transaction GuideAm Jur Legal FormsWest’s California Code Forms with Practice CommentariesCalifornia Civil Litigation Forms ManualCalifornia Judicial Council Forms ManualWest’s California Judicial Council Forms

Federal Procedural Forms, Lawyer’s Edition

LexisOne has some free and some pay legal forms at
California Judicial Council forms are available online and are fillable online at
Check local Superior Court websites for their forms at
US Courtforms has some free and some pay legal forms at

Court Rules

When you know the law and have the correct forms you need you can still fail in your research if you overlook the rules that govern each court. Each local court, either at the state or federal level, will have its own rules. California has state-wide court rules. Bankruptcy courts and other specialized courts have their own rules. Rules of court control the operation of the courts and how the individuals involved in the court process must conduct themselves.

Many law libraries will have the court rules you need for state and federal courts. However, often the best place to check for court rules is the website of the court in which you are interested.

In Print
Look in any annotated code set-they will often contain court rules for the jurisdiction
Federal Local Court Rules (West)
California Rules of Court-State (West)
California Rules of Court-Federal (West)
California Court Rules (Southern California and Northern California) (Daily Journal Corp.)

California Rules of Court at
California Local Court Rules at
LLRX Court Rule finder at
Go to federal court sites for their rules at
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure at
Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure at
Federal Rules of Evidence at

The Importance of Updating Your Research

When doing legal research you can never overlook the fact that the law changes rapidly and often. You may find a perfect case and find that it was later overruled. The statute you are relying on may have been amended or repealed. You must always find a way to update your research before you represent to any court that the law you are relying on is still “good” law. Always make sure you know the last update date of the material you use in your research. Check all supplements and pocket parts (those little pamphlets in the back of code volumes and many other legal books).

The main way of updating codes, cases, and regulations is through use of an online service such as West’s KeyCite or Lexis/Nexis’ Shepard’s Citations. Print versions of Shepard’s are available at many law libraries. These types of legal research resources help the researcher find out prior and subsequent history of cases and statutes.

These services work by citation. The actual process of updating your research is beyond the scope of this tutorial; however, there are many online tutorials which discuss this in detail. See for example: San Diego County Public Law Library’s Guide on Shepardizing California Cases at

Some of the county law libraries in the state may subscribe to online services that allow you to KeyCite or Shepardize your legal research for free or a nominal print charge. Check with the individual library for access to these services.

A Few Other Sources to Consider

If looking for courts, law related agencies, or attorneys, use legal directories that are available online and in print in many law libraries.

Martindale Hubbell Law Directory is an annual directory of attorneys which provides ratings, practice profiles, and other detailed information on attorneys on a national and international level. Search the same directory online at

The California State Bar website at provides information on California attorneys and will tell you if a member has been disciplined or disbarred for misconduct. You can also find out where the attorney went to school and when they were admitted to practice in this state.

FindLaw also has a legal directory for finding attorneys online at

Law Reviews, law journals, and legal magazines and newspapers are also available at many larger public law libraries. These may be useful in your research if you are looking for cutting edge topics and extensive footnoting to source materials. These are indexed in pay databases or print indexes such as Legal Trac, Index to Legal Periodicals, or the Current Law Index. Check a local law school or larger public law library for these indexes and this type of publication.

Online legal research databases. There are several online legal research databases such as Lexis, Westlaw, LoisLaw, and others. These databases contain case law, statutory law, and some practice guides and other legal research materials. These databases are not always widely available in county law libraries because of their cost. If you wish to search using computer databases, check with your local law library to see what they have available.

How to Cite Your Research

Once you have compiled your research and updated all of your references, you may find yourself writing documents to file in court. You will have to tell the court where you located your references. In order to do this properly, you will have to look at sources which cover how to properly cite to legal materials.

Check the mentioned sources for guidance on how to complete this task.

In Print
The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation
California Style Manual

Peter Martin’s Introduction to Basic Legal Citation at
The Bluebook online at

When to Stop Your Research

No one can really tell you when you reach the comfort level you need to stop your research. Many sources suggest that when you read the same legal rule over and over again you have found your answer. One good online source that gives guidance in this regard is from the University of San Francisco Law Library at

Also, if you are unsure of where your research has led you, you may always consult with an attorney that is experienced in the legal topic you are researching. Consult the directory sources listed in this guide if you need to find such an attorney. Each California county also has a Lawyer Referral service which can direct you to an experienced attorney for a free initial consultation.