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George W. Hopper Law Library|College of Law

How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers

This guide is intended to help a person with a legal problem find legal rules that can resolve or prevent conflict. It is most useful to work through the steps and sources in the order given.

GETTING STARTED

Determine exactly what the question is that you need to answer.

Identify the jurisdiction. This is affected by where the event occurred or by the subject or your question. It requires determining which court or government agency can resolve the conflict. You need this information before beginning research.

Understand citations and abbreviations. Most law books are cited in order of volume number, book, and page. For example, 410 U.S. 113 would signify volume 410 of United States Reports, page 113. Statutes are cited by statute title and section number, such as 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for title 42 United States Code, section 1983. Any law library can assist you in reading a cite or determining the abbreviated title.

PLACES TO FIND HELP

Public libraries will have at least some of the codes, texts, and self-help materials mentioned here, as well as facilities for internet access.

Most county, court, or law school libraries are open to the public and contain some of the resources talked about here. Internet access for the public will vary across libraries of this type.

Depository libraries of federal materials are located at most law libraries, larger public libraries, and universities and are required by law to be available to the public. Increasingly, the federal government has made many of its depository and other publications available on the internet at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys. Guides are available at our web site, http://www.uwyo.edu/lawlib/researchguides/index.html, or from other law libraries on the web.

The Internet is not a comprehensive source for legal material, but good starting points for legal information are available at: The Legal Information Institute, http://www.law.cornell.edu; FindLaw, http://www.findlaw.com; WashLaw: Legal Research on the Web, http://www.washlaw.edu; The American Bar Association's Public Resources page, http://www.americanbar.org/portals/public_resources.html; HierosGamos, http://www.hg.org; Public Library of Law, http://www.plol.org; and LexisOne, http://www.lexisone.com.

SOME GOOD SOURCES OF INFORMATION

Self-help books or kits containing instructions and forms are available in many bookstores and public libraries and even from some court clerks and legal aid offices to help non-lawyers with routine matters. The books or kits may cover divorce, bankruptcy, traffic tickets, wills, contracts and leases, landlord-tenant agreements, small business matters, and many other legal subjects. Usually written by lawyers, such books may save the patron hours of research. At the Wyoming Supreme Court web site, http://www.courts.state.wy.us, for example, there are links to divorce kits to guide you through the process. Try searching the name of the state along with "self help" to find similar resources from other states. Some self-help information is also available at Nolo Press, http://www.nolo.com, specifically geared towards the non-lawyer.

Practice aids and form books are intended for lawyers, but they can be useful for anyone. Some examples of practice aids are Causes of Action, American Jurisprudence Trials, and American Jurisprudence Proof of Facts, which give guidance in what evidence a court must be given and how to proceed. Form books aid in drafting legal documents or documents that need to be filed in court. State form books are available for many states, but Wyoming is not among them. It may be necessary to check into general form books like American Jurisprudence Legal Forms, American Jurisprudence Pleading and Practice Forms, West's Legal Froms, and West's Federal Forms or the Wyoming Court Rules. While some forms are available free on the internet, such as those at http://www.lexisone.com, many sites will ultimately charge a fee. Try your local court and nearest law library first.

Legal encyclopedias are a good starting point to get an overview of a topic. There are two general legal encyclopedias: Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.) and American Jurisprudence 2d (Am. Jur. 2d). Many states also have encyclopedias of state law, though, again, Wyoming does not. Begin with the index and look for different synonyms of your term. The text will contain many footnotes leading to further sources.

Texts and treatises can also yield useful general information. They contain the law on a specific subject, sometimes a specific jurisdiction. The briefest are those in West Publishing Company's Nutshell Series. West's Hornbooks or comparable publications provide more depth. Multivolume encyclopedic treatises present comprehensive information for many subjects and may include forms.

Articles printed in journals or law reviews published commercially by law schools or bar associations may also be useful. Look up your search terms in printed or computer databases such as Hein Online. Some articles may be found online for free at sites such as Jurist's Law Reviews page at http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/lawreviews and the University Law Review Project at http://www.lawreview.org. The dates of full-text coverage and level of searchability will vary. Author searches using search engines like Google.com can sometimes lead to free copies of a legal expert's articles. Authors also post their articles on bePress, http://www.bepress.com/journals and SSRN (Social Science Research Network), http://ssrn.com. These can be accessed for free.

Codes are laws that are passed by a law-making assembly or agency. They contain legal rules known as statutes, regulations or ordinances. Topics within sets of codes are accessed through their index that refers you to a numbered section. They are updated by supplements or pocket parts or are in binder or "looseleaf" form.

Most public libraries and all law libraries will contain a copy of the local state code, which holds the laws passed by a state's legislature. They may also have city or county ordinance codes and codes of state administrative agency regulations. Most state and some local law can be found on the internet by going to a state's official site and looking for links to law and local government (or cities and counties). Try using the URL http://www.state.xx.us, where "xx" is the state's postal abbreviation. Sites such as at http://www.washlaw.edu will also lead to states' government sites.

One of the following federal code versions will be used if the jurisdiction is federal: The United States Code (U.S.C.), United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) or United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.). The U.S.C. is available at http://uscode.house.gov, although other sites containing the U.S.C., e.g. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode, may provide easier ways to locate a particular statute. For pending and new federal laws, you'll probably need to check Thomas, the government web site for legislative information, at http://thomas.loc.gov. Regulations of federal agencies are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/advanced/advsearchpage.action, though they are more current and easily searchable at http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov.

Court rules state the procedure by which a dispute must make its way to court and how the resolution of the dispute is to be conducted. Court rules address such topics as time limitations and formal requirements for pleadings and other court documents or processes. Although procedural law can also be found in statutory and administrative codes, court rules are generally more detailed and can vary from court to court. Wyoming court rules are available at http://www.courts.state.wy.us/CourtRules.aspx.

Reports or reporters contain opinions (sometimes called decisions or cases) written by courts to explain how and why certain legal rules were used to resolve the dispute in a particular lawsuit. These rules constitute the "common law" and are followed by courts deciding later cases with similar facts and issues so that consistency may be maintained. Decisions of a higher court are mandatory, or binding. This means those decisions must be followed if coming from a higher court in the same jurisdiction or from the U. S. Supreme Court. If a decision is not binding, a court may still find it persuasive and follow it.

With few exceptions, these cases are from courts of appeals rather than trial courts. (The most common exception is decisions from federal district courts reported in the Federal Supplement, abbreviated F. Supp.) Opinions are not written for every case. Further, not every decision is selected by the court for publication. These "unpublished" decisions, such as those found in the Federal Appendix (F. Appx.), can help one to understand the law. However, it is important to consult a court's rules on citation of unpublished opinions before using them to support an argument in a legal proceeding.

Cases decided in the U.S. Supreme Court are reported in the United States Reports (U.S.) and reprinted in the Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.) and United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition, first and second series (L.Ed., L.Ed.2d). Newer U.S. Supreme Court cases are available at http://lp.findlaw.com. Cases from the intermediate U.S. Courts of Appeals, also called U.S. Circuit Courts, are printed in the Federal Reporter, first, second, or third series (F., F.2d and F.3d). The Federal Supplement, first and second series (F.Supp., F. Supp.2d) contain cases from the U.S. District Courts. Newer circuit court and district court cases can be found at http://www.uscourts.gov/courtlinks or http://www.law.cornell.edu/federal/opinions.html, though availability of cases will vary from court to court.

State supreme court opinions are printed in state reports in many states. They are also reprinted in West's regional reporters, which each contain several states, including the Atlantic (A. and A.2d), North Eastern (N.E. and N.E.2d), North Western (N.W. and N.W.2d), Pacific (P., P.2d and P.3d), South Eastern (S.E. and S.E.2d), South Western (S.W., S.W.2d and S.W.3d), and Southern (So. and So.2d) Reporters. Because California and New York generate a large amount of case law, these states have their own West reporters: the California Reporter (Cal. Rptr., Cal. Rptr.2d and Cal. Rptr.3d) and the New York Supplement (N.Y.S. and N.Y.S.2d).

Many states, like Wyoming, no longer print their own reports, so their newer decisions are found only in West's reporters. Wyoming decisions are found in the Pacific Reporter. They are also available at http://wyomcases.courts.state.wy.us/applications/oscn/index.asp dating back to the mid-1990s. Sometimes a decision is printed in more than one publication. Then you may find more than one citation to it. These are called parallel citations. For availability of state court opinions on the internet, go to the individual state government's web site or one of the general sites listed at the beginning of this guide, such as http://www.washlaw.edu.

Finding opinions may be done in various ways. Reports are not arranged by subject, and the sets are not indexed. Often you can find a reference from text or footnotes of texts, encyclopedias, or other cases. Annotated codes will list cases which have cited a statute following the text of the statute.

Electronic databases of legal materials, including case law, are available at the Law Library. Both Westlaw and Lexis can be searched on site without a password. Free case law is also available on the internet from the general law sites listed above through Google Scholar at http://scholar.google.com.

Digests for federal jurisdictions, most states and several of the regions that correspond to the regional reporters. For example, there is a Federal Practice Digest (Fed. Prac. Dig.), a California Digest (Cal. Dig.) and a Pacific Digest (Pac. Dig.). The Decennial Digest (Dec. Dig.) covers all jurisdictions in 10-year increments. These publications make West's American Digest System, which divides the law into more than 400 topics. Each topic is subdivided into principles or points of law which are each assigned a "key" number. Pigeonholed under each key number are brief paragraphs abstracted from cases, which summarize the points of each case, and citations to where each case can be found. It is possible to go directly to the topic in the digest and scan through the key numbers, but it is usually less confusing to start in the Descriptive Word Index to the digest. This index uses common words to lead to the right topic and key number. The digest also contains a case table, which can be used to look up a citation if only the name of a case is known.

American Law Reports (A.L.R.) functions both as a digest of leading cases on a particular topic and as an index to "annotations," which review a legal topic in depth and analyze court cases from all jurisdictions on the subject.

Reports and digests for certain courts or topics are also beneficial. These cover legal areas such as bankruptcy, military justice, education, labor, and tax. Administrative agencies, which often act as tribunals in their areas of jurisdiction, also publish reports of their opinions, often with digests.

Looseleaf services are useful tools that pull together text, statutes, regulations, and opinions of courts and administrative agencies on specific important topics that need constant updating. Examples include Standard Federal Tax Reporter, Federal Tax Coordinator, Employment, Bankruptcy Law Reporter, Consumer Credit Guide, Family Law Reporter, CoordinatorCriminal Law Reporter at http://uwadmnweb.uwyo.edu/lawlib/databases.asp, but access is limited to law school patrons.

BEFORE YOU STOP

Check supplements. These sometimes appear as "pocket parts" inserted into the back covers of volumes to provide updates and new material.

Check Citators. Shepard's is the most common. These must be used to ascertain whether the validity of a case or statute has been affected in some way, such as being reversed, overruled or ruled unconstitutional (for statutes). They are also used to determine if one case has been cited by another. KeyCite in Westlaw and Shepards in Lexis are the tools for this. We have both available on our computers in the reference area of the library.

WHEN TO STOP

You'll keep reading the same legal rule. You may notice that once you have thoroughly covered all the sources listed above, the same legal rule, whether set out in statute, regulation, or court opinion, will appear in several places. You can usually take this as confirmation that your research has been complete enough to give a reliable answer to your legal question.

MORE INFORMATION

An attorney may still be required to hlep find and understand legal information. Word of mouth, the Yellow Pages, or state and local bar associations can help you find one. Attorney directories are available online at http://www.lawhelp.org, http://www.martindale.com and http://lawyers.findlaw.com.

A law librarian can help but cannot give legal advice. Call your local public library for a listing of area law libraries.

Other suggested resources:

Finding the Law (2005)

Fundamentals of Legal Research (2009)

Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law (2009)

Legal Research in a Nutshell (2007)

This guide was adapted from a guide prepared by Lee Warthen and Angus Nesbit for Legal Information Services to the Public (LISP), a Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). For more information on LISP and its activities, see http://www.aallnet.org/sections/lisp

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