Legal research: How, Where?
Many lawsuits will involve conducting some legal research. The sources of legal information are many, some more reliable than others, and varying widely in their usefulness to a particular issue. The one thing to always remember when conducting legal research is that if the research is not reliable it is useless to you. If you should happen to find a case that supports your theory of liability that is out of date or has been overturned by subsequent decision then it cannot be used. The worst thing you can possibly do is prepare a case around caselaw that is no longer appropriate. This will only make you look like a fool in the courtroom and destroy any credibility you may have developed.
In todayâ€™s technology-driven world, much information is available online, but this accessibility comes with a major caveatâ€”reliability of the information is at times sub-par and must be ascertained before the information is relied upon. Other ways to research legal issues include through libraries, classroom education, or recognized organizations.
The internet is a powerful resource with a wealth of information. Nevertheless, a researcher must remain alert to bogus sources that offer inaccurate information.
A good place to start is on the website of the American Bar Association, or the bar association for a particular state. Bar associations frequently offer basic legal advice online to the general public, and also frequently provide contact information for attorneys and other experts who may be of assistance. Note, however, that much specialized information on bar association sites is limited to attorneys who are a member of the particular bar.
Court websites are also a valuable resource. The entire text of the constitution, the United States Code, and all federal and state laws and regulations are available online. Sites of particular courts provide not only contact information, which can direct researchers to the appropriate person to answer a specific question, but most also have downloadable tools, such as child support calculators, and jurisdiction-specific forms for filing documents with the particular court.
Attorneys commonly use online resources such as LexisNexis or Westlaw to conduct legal research. These databases offer complete laws, regulations, journal articles, case law, and other information. However, they are accessible by subscription only, which can be quite expensive, and probably not worth the investment for an individual with limited research needs.
A more public-friendly site is Findlaw.com, a reliable and complete resource for legal information that is free, and that includes a section geared to the general public with explanations of legal nuances and language easily understood by a non-attorney.
Beware online â€œdo-it-yourselfâ€ legal resources. Many websites are written by amateurs and offer forms and guidelines for situations such as writing oneâ€™s own will, starting oneâ€™s own business, and so on. Even with the best intentions, a non-professional may omit something imperative in such offerings, so a researcher is advised to stick to reputable sites with verifiable and correct information.
Public libraries offer a multitude of legal resources, including books, journals, microfiche, and other formats. A reference librarian can assist a researcher with determining what types of resources are most useful to his/her needs and where to locate said resource.
Law school libraries are a wonderful place to conduct research. Most public law schoolsâ€™ libraries are open to the public during regular hours of operation, and here a researcher can find everything from statutes to journal articles to case law to advice for trial. Because law school libraries are, of course, primarily for the use of law students, numerous volumes are usually available that are geared to those new to the legal profession, which makes them easier for a non-attorney researcher to comprehend.
Some legal issues, such as estate and divorce matters, are common enough among the general populations that local organizations, universities, or community colleges offer classes to address them. Such classes are frequently advertised in local newspapers, as well as in publications and on the websites of the hosting organization or educational institution.
Be aware that such classes offer very basic information. They are not intended to provide formal legal advice as one would get from a consultation with an attorney. Nevertheless, education of this type can lay the basic groundwork and steer a researcher to other resources to develop, if necessary, a further understanding of the issue in question.
Other resources for legal research include the following:
- Booksâ€”many volumes offering legal advice are available for purchase, but as with online research, it is imperative that the researcher ascertain that the information provided is reliable, accurate, and current
- Clinicsâ€”attorneys frequently participate in free advisory clinics, often held at public locations such as libraries, during which persons with legal questions can have them answered by professionals on a very basic level without having to pay the attorney for his/her time
- Bar Associationsâ€”state bar associations may have available resources that they will allow a researcher to use, such as statutory materials and volumes of case law
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