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Legal Research

Fundamentals of Legal Research


This LawGuide introduces fundamentals of legal research. It includes a framework for beginning your research, the vocabulary of legal research, and basic "how-tos" for finding the law.

Because law has a unique vocabulary, legal research is challenging for beginners. This LawGuide is intended to be a reference for addressing the early challenges. As you become more adept at researching, you can merge techniques you've learned from a number of sources.

In addition to your legal research class, the major legal publishers provide instruction in person and online. You should take advantage of this instruction and the advanced legal research research classes available after your first year. It is critical that you become familiar with using the major search providers before the summer because you need to be prepared to use whatever your employer has!

American Law

Where Does Law Come From?   

 Law is generated by the three branches of government.   

  • Judicial branch - case law 
  • Legislative branch - statutes, resolutions, treaties
  • Executive branch - regulations, agency decisions, executive orders

Remember that there are multiple levels of government!!

  • Federal 
  • State
  • Local: city, county, township, school district, water district, etc.
  • Foreign
  • International

 The Law is Complicated!!


 You wouldn't have to spend three years and lots of $money$ to study it!

  • Legal services would be cheap
  • Wouldn't get differing legal opinions on same question
  • Complying with the law wouldn't be so expensive and time consuming
  • Wouldn't have so many finding aids to help you find the law and secondary sources to explain it  


The last tab has some resources to help you quickly brush up on American government. You must understand the structure of the American government in order to do legal research.

If you think you know American Government without review, try to take the citizenship test for naturalization.

Legal "authority"

NEXT UP: Can you cite it?

"Authority" is one of the most important concepts you need to understand before you begin to look for the law. It may sound b-o-r-i-n-g, but make sure you understand how to evaluate sources before moving forward.


Much thanks to Sarah Gotschall, University of Arizona Law Librarian extraordinaire, who continues to inspire me and who originally developed  these materials and allowed me to adapt them for use here.