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Circuit Riders: Legal Research Training for Non-Lawyers

The Research Process

Know Your Resources

The firs
step in the legal research process is to become familiar with the print and online materials and finding aids available to research your legal issue. This guide is an excellent place to start.

You might also consult a research guide for your state, such as A Guide to South Carolina Legal Research and Citation, by Paula Gail Benson, or to learn about federal materials, Federal Legal Research, published by Carolina Academic Press. 

The second step in the legal research process is to develop a research plan (see The Research Plan section below). 

Implementing Your Plan

The main goal of legal research is to find primary mandatory authority, which is the law from the highest authority, local, state or federal, that controls your legal issue. Persuasive authority includes primary authority (law) from another jurisdiction, decisions from lower courts within your jurisdiction, and all secondary authority (non-law). See the Weight of Authority section under U.S. Legal System, which includes the chart below on Evaluating Legal Resources.

Implementing a research plan requires organization. Strategies for staying organized as you research include sticking to your plan, reading and updating the cases as you find them, taking good notes on why each case is important, and recording citation information as you go along.

Perhaps the most important strategy for effective and efficient legal research is to ask a librarian when you are struggling to find anything relevant or to narrow your research.

When to Stop

A good rule of thumb for when to stop researching a legal issue is when you keep finding the same resources. At that point, you will probably not be learning anything new. And, if you have used the search tools and strategies suggested in this guide, you should feel confident that you have conducted a thorough search. 

Secondary Sources

One way to feel more confident in your research is to consult a secondary source on the topic. This guide covers how to locate relevant secondary sources including books and treatises, legal encyclopedias, and law review articles in print and online. It also suggests specific resources for researching common legal topics.

Because most South Carolina-specific secondary sources will not be available online, you may wish to consult your local library's online catalog. Before visiting the Coleman Karesh law library to use our resources, you can search our catalog as well (see below).

Coleman Karesh Law Library Catalog

Search the Law Library Catalog

Evaluating Legal Sources

The Research Plan

The Research Plan

The following are key steps in the legal research planning process:

Identify the Relevant Facts

You must understand the facts of your case to determine which facts appear relevant, knowing that your first impression may change as you conduct initial research and learn more about the laws that apply.  

Determine the Controlling Jurisdiction

As you gain more experience as a legal researcher, it will become easier to determine whether a legal issue is controlled by state law, federal law, or both. Knowing which jurisdiction controls will help you decide which laws apply and which legal resources to consult. For example, for a family law or probate law issue, you typically will be dealing with state statutes and cases, while bankruptcy is controlled exclusively by federal law.

Draft a Preliminary Issue Statement

Drafting a preliminary issue statement can help you begin your research.  If you are unfamiliar with a legal topic or area of law, you may need to conduct preliminary research to identify your legal issue. Consider the questions presented by the facts of your problem. As you consider the facts of your problem and the legal issue(s) involved, you will naturally think of search terms you can use to consult an index, a table of contents, a topic outline, or to use in a keyword search.

Generate Search Terms

To draft a list of search terms, think of the parties, places, and things involved. Useful search terms may also include potential claims and defenses and relief sought. 

Generating a list of relevant search terms often requires a basic knowledge of the terms used in the area of law that controls the problem you are researching. If you are unfamiliar with a particular area of law, consult a secondary source such as a legal encyclopedia or a book (also called a treatise) on the topic. If you come across terms you do not understand, try a legal dictionary.

You might easily identify key search terms with just a little preliminary research, particularly if you find a statute or read a case that addresses your legal issue. 

Develop a Research Strategy

Once you have a basic idea of the relevant facts and issue(s) involved and have generated a list of possible search terms for your problem, the next step in the legal research process is to map out a search strategy. Your research strategy should include the sources you plan to consult, the order you plan to consult them, for what purpose, and in what format.

The specific resources you consult and the order you consult them may depend on the law that applies to your problem, which could include statutory law, common law, or both. The key difference is the order in which you consult the resources available to you. Experienced researchers know instinctively when a problem is governed by statutory law, as is most crimes, or negligence, which is a common law claim. Otherwise, consulting a secondary source, such as a legal encyclopedia or treatise can be very helpful in deciding where to begin your research. 

You might locate relevant cases using the index to a print digest or a keyword search in an electronic resource, such as Westlaw Next, Lexis Advance, LexisNexis Academic, Bloomberg Law, or a free resource like the South Carolina Judicial Department website or Google Scholar. Once you have one good case, you can take advantage of the headnotes for that case to find more cases on that same legal topic using a digest or electronic database.

You should always use a citator (KeyCite, Shepard's, or BCite) to make sure any case you intend to cite in any document you present to a court is still good law. You can also use a citator to find cases and secondary sources that cite each case you find.

If the rule that governs your legal issue is statutory, annotated codes provide cross references to related statutes, cases interpreting and applying individual statutes, and relevant secondary sources on the legal topic addressed by that law. Of course, you should always use a citator (KeyCite or Shepard's or BCite) to make sure any statute you plan to use is still good law and to find cases and secondary sources that cite it.  

or additional analysis of the legal issues you are researching, always read and update the relevant cases cited within each case you find. 

See The Legal Research Process Flowchart below.

The Legal Research Process Flowchart