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How Do I: Do Legal Research?: Home

How to search for legal cases and materials, without being a lawyer..

What this guide will and won't do

The purpose of this guide is to help people unfamiliar with legal research identify key areas and locate materials to answer their questions. This guide does not give legal advice* -- see a lawyer for that.

Legal research can be confusing and time-consuming;. be prepared to invest a good amount of time in your research. Especially until you become familiar with legal terms and citations, you may need to go over sources several times before understanding what it means.

* Library staff can not provide substantive advice on a legal problem, interpret legal materials for you, or explain how the law applies to your particular case. That would constitute the "unauthorized practice of law" [W.V. Code §30-2-4 and Brammer v. Taylor, 338 S.E.2d 207 (W.Va. 1985), footnote 7].

Sources of "the law"

Most people think that laws passed by the legislature are "the law", but in reality the law is a complex combination of three types of law. These typically follow the structure of the jurisdiction's government. So, in the United States we have

  • Statutory Law: laws passed by a legislative body, such as the United States Congress or the West Virginia Legislature
  • Administrative Law: decisions, rules, and regulations made by administrative agencies which specify how they will carry out legislation. Good examples are the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Department of Education
  • Case Law: court decisions, usually opinions written by appellate courts, which are binding law on the lower courts in the jurisdiction.

Graphic view of the sources of American law

Getting started

The first thing you have to figure out is what kind of information you are looking for:

  • the text of a specific court decision
  • court decisions on a particular topic
  • the text of a specific law or regulation
  • laws or regulations on a particular subject
  • general information on a legal topic
  • legal forms
  • legal advice

Useful guides to starting your research are:

Free online legal information

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Dena Callicoat Laton
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Created by Timothy A. Balch.  Available under a Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)