Legal Research Summary Guide
There are many reasons people do their own legal research. Frequently though, non-lawyers tend to have misconceptions about legal research and are overwhelmed at all the various type of law books. Legal research takes time: there is much note taking and rarely is all the needed information in one place.
From Legal Research Made Easy by Suzan D. Herskowitz, the following is a summary of steps for effective legal research:
1. Formulate a clear idea of what information you need.
Different types of books are needed to get information about your legal rights vs. finding the procedure for registering a trademark. Also decide if there is an answer to a specific question that’s needed or more general information about an area of law.
2. Think of all possible words and phrases that describe the research topic.
Try one of these resources to help you: Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus or Black’s Law Dictionary.
3. Decide whether the case involves federal law, state law or both.
Ask yourself what your problem involves. Also, initial research will point towards statutes or court cases. Note whether these are state or federal.
Do not assume that the law in one state is the same as the law in another state or that federal law, if it applies, is the same as state law. You must research each independently.
4. Decide whether you are dealing with civil or criminal law.
In general, unless there is a specific statute with criminal penalties attached to it, the matter will not involve criminal law.
5. Check the library for books on the area of the law you need to research.
Consumer Law Books
There have been many books published explaining legal procedures in simple language. Check the library’s catalog for books on your topic.
Practice Manual for Lawyers
These manuals explain how to practice law. Intended for lawyers, they could be the most useful tool in completing your procedure. The Missouri Practice Series can be found at the Library Center, the Library Station and the Midtown Carnegie branches.
6. Find any statute(s) pertaining to your issue.
Make sure the statute is up-to-date and take any notes of cases you find in the
annotations to statutes that sound helpful.
The Missouri Revised Statutes (Missouri state law) can be viewed online or at the Library Center or at the Brentwood branch.
Please note, the print edition is no longer updated. Only the online information is
Vernon’s Annotated Missouri Statutes provides the text of the statutes, and is updated with regularly published “pocket parts.” Pocket parts are pamphlets that include additions or amendments to the books and are designed to slide into pockets built into the back cover of each volume. In addition to providing the text of the statutes, Vernon’s also provides extensive notes demonstrating how Missouri courts have interpreted and applied the statutes.
7. Find any case(s) relevant to your issue.
Digests are the primary printed source for finding cases. They are a compilation of
abstracts, or summaries, of cases in a particular jurisdiction or legal area. You should
note any case citation that may be helpful in your situation.
The Missouri Digest gives summarized points of law from Missouri cases, both state and federal, decided from earliest times to date. The second edition, 2d edition or the green edition, considers cases from 1930 to the present and is located at the Library Center and the Library Station.
8. Look up the cases in the reporters.
After finding case citations in the digest or from the statutes, look up each case by the
case citation in the reporters. Case reporters are sets of books in which court opinions are printed. Most reporters are published by West Publishing Company. West publishes the cases in regional reporters, which divide the country into regions. Missouri is covered in the South Western Reporter.
You can also search MissouriCase.net and the Missouri Courts website for past and current cases.
9. Make note of any headnotes that seem particularly relevant.
One of the most important aspects of a case in the West system is the headnote.
Headnotes precede the actual printed opinion in the reporter. It is a brief summary of a
legal rule or significant fact in a case. In a digest, this would be the abstract of a case. It’s important to research because once you find a headnote that is relevant to your situation, you can go back to the digest and find additional cases covering that topic.
10. Shepardize any relevant cases to your situation.
You have now done some case research and hopefully found many cases that support your situation. Now, you need to make sure these cases are good law; that they haven’t been overruled or reversed. To do this, you need to look up each case in a citator. There are two principal citators; Shepard’s Citations (both in print and online via LexisNexis) and KeyCite (an online-only service provided by Westlaw).
Access to Shepard's Citations in print is available at the Meyer Library at Missouri State Library. The library is open to the public for research.
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