As anyone who has ever worked in a law office knows, conducting legal research can be costly. Access to the practice guides provided by legal research companies can easily run hundreds of dollars a year, maybe more depending on practice areas. Many attorneys depend on these guides regularly to do their jobs. However, if your need to conduct legal research is more occasional, here are my tips for doing it on the cheap.
Public Law Libraries:
First of all, you want to get acquainted with your nearest public law library. A Google search can show you the one closest to you. Many legal professionals use public law libraries.
Your public law library will have practice guide books which cover many different areas of the law. These can help you find plenty of information on any legal subject you wish to learn more about. If you need help getting started, a librarian can assist you. You can research statutes which will tell you what the laws are, and case law which will tell you how courts have previously interpreted those laws. Many law libraries also offer no-cost or low-cost access to online legal research materials, which offer information as extensive as in the books.
One advantage of using online legal research tools is the ability to easily “Shepardize” cases – meaning that as you read cases related to the legal subject or question you are researching, you can see immediately whether that case is still considered good authority. For instance, if a case has since been overruled by a subsequent case, or if not all higher courts have agreed with the ruling, then you will know that it is not a case that can be relied upon as good authority.
If you are new to doing legal research, your public law library is a great place to start.
Justia and Google Scholar:
If you visit Justia at https://www.justia.com, or Google Scholar at https://scholar.google.com/, you can research case law. You can choose on Justia from different areas of law, and on Google Scholar from different levels of state and federal courts to narrow down your search. Once you familiarize yourself with these sites, these free and easily accessible resources can be used for legal research from anywhere.
Note that by using any search engine, you can also look up statutes online, i.e., the Civil Code, Penal Code, Family Code, Business & Professions Code, Code of Civil Procedure, Probate Code, and more.
Legal blogs are increasingly common for attorneys and law firms. Often, visiting these blogs can answer quick questions you may have, and give you general information about a legal subject. Simply putting your legal question into a search engine will often lead to an attorney blog which addresses that subject.
Attorney blogs are also a great tool for getting you started with in-depth research without a library, since they can give you big hints about where to begin. For instance, if you want to know how spousal support might be determined in a divorce, but don’t know where to start: Many family law blogs will tell you that you want to refer to the Family Code, and will mention specific sections (in CA, Family Code Section 4320 will be key.)
Once you know what to look for, you can use a search engine to find the applicable statutes, and you can use Justia or Google Scholar to find case law to help determine how the statutes have been previously interpreted.
A caveat about referencing attorney blogs: Make sure to look for attorneys from your home state, for greatest accuracy! Or, if a legal matter is tied to another then, then look for attorneys from that state.
As always, dear readers, thank you for following me. I hope you enjoyed this, and learned something valuable.
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Please note that the above is offered for educational purposes, and as a means of encouraging intellectual curiosity about the law. The information presented may not take into account every exception, variation, or complication which could apply to someone’s legal matters. Accordingly, nothing in this post or blog is ever intended as, nor should be construed by or relied upon by anyone, as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney who can give you assistance specific to your needs.