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Circuit Riders: Basic Legal Research

A guide for non-law librarians

Know Your Resources

The first step in researching a legal issue is to know what print and online legal resources and finding aids are available to you.

This guide is designed to serve as a reference and training tool for locating the law (statutes, regulations, and cases) and secondary sources (legal encyclopedias, books/treatises, and articles, etc.) on a particular legal issue.

After you learn about the resources available to you and how to find them, you will be ready to develop and implement your research plan. 

Developing a Legal Research Plan

DecorativeTo develop a research plan, try answering the following questions:

What is the legal issue?
You may need to begin researching a legal topic or area of law before you can identify your legal issue. Consider the facts of your case and make a list of search terms that will help you find the applicable law. 

Which search terms will you use?
To draft a list of search terms, think of the parties involved, such as a husband and wife, employer and employee, landlord and tenant, or creditor and debtor. Consider the places and things involved, like a marital home, wages, rent, or a loan.  Useful search terms may also include potential claims and defenses and relief sought, like a spouse filing an action for a divorce and requesting alimony or child custody.

You may wish to consult a secondary source like a legal encyclopedia or a book or treatise to learn the terms used to describe an area of law. If you come across terms you do not understand, try a legal dictionary.

As you begin your research, you may quickly learn key terms by finding a statute or reading a case that addresses your legal issue. 

What is the Controlling Jurisdiction?
A legal issue may be controlled by state law, federal law, or both. For example, if you are researching a family or probate law issue, you will likely be dealing with state statutes and cases, while bankruptcy and copyright law is controlled by federal law. The more legal research you do, the easier it will  become to determine which jurisdiction controls a particular legal issue.

What is your research strategy?
Once you have a basic idea of the issue(s) and controlling jurisdiction and you create a list of possible search terms, the next step in your legal research process is to map out a research strategy. Your research strategy should include the resources 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 legal issue. With experience, it will become easier to  predict whether an issue 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 book/treatise can be very helpful in deciding where to begin your research. 

Implementing Your Research 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). Learn more about legal authority on this page.

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, the USC School of Law Library's catalog, and the Legal Research by Topic page within this guide. 

The books shown below are excellent resources for additional help with basic legal research and how to research specific legal questions.