Starting And Ending Your Research

Get some tips on starting your legal research - how to narrow your legal issue and decide which laws might apply.  And nearly as important, learn when it might be time to end your research.


Starting Your Research

Beginning legal research can be a little intimidating.  There are thousands of laws and regulations, and they are not always easy to find.  Here are some pointers:

  • Figure out your legal issue.
    • Your "legal issue" is the question you are hoping your research will answer.  It may be as simple as, "Is it legal for my neighbor to dump trash in my yard?"  Or it may be more complicated like, "How much air pollution can a company put into the air?"
    • You may want to get a broad overview of your legal issues and the general area of law by looking at a legal encyclopedia or a law review article on the topic.
  • Figure out what laws you want to research.
    • Federal, state, county, and city governments all have their own laws.  Focus on one of these "jurisdictions" at a time.  To get an idea of where to look, think about the nature of your problem.  Is it something the federal government might be involved in (like labor law or taxes)?  How about the state government or a local government?  For example, if your legal issue is that your neighbor is dumping trash in your yard, that is probably governed by a local city or county ordinance.  (Although it is certainly important to you, it is doubtful that Congress has the time to pass laws about trash in your neighborhood.)
  • Look at a variety of different types of laws in your jurisdiction.
    • Statutes.  Is there a statute that relates to your issue?  Think of as many words as you can that might apply to your case.  Then look in the index to the Nevada Revised Statutes to see whether there is a Nevada statute on that topic.  For example, if you are having an issue with your landlord, you could look in the index for the words "landlord, "tenant," "eviction," "housing," "leases," and so on.  The index will refer you to statutes on those topics.
    • Cases.  You may be able to find the names of one or two case dealing with your legal issue by looking at the statutes (there might be a case referenced or "annotated" at the end of a statute that relates to your issue), legal encyclopedias, law reviews, or treatises.  Once you find the case names and citations, you can find the actual written cases at your law library.  You can also try finding cases on the Internet or on an electronic service such as Westlaw or Lexis. Be careful, though.  When you type in a search term, your search might turn up hundreds or even thousands of cases, most of which will not be relevant to your situation.  You may want to ask your local law librarian for assistance using those electronic tools.
Ending Your Research

It may seem like you could keep researching your subject forever.  It is important, however, not to spend all your time researching, and none of your time understanding what you have found, writing your motions or briefs to the court, or taking whatever other actions you need to take.

It may be time to stop your research if –

  • You have looked for statutes, regulations, and case law that might apply to your situation and either found sources relevant to your situation or satisfied yourself that there are no relevant laws or cases.  By looking at different types of laws, you can make sure that your bases are covered.

  • If you have found statutes, cases, or regulations that seem to directly fit your situation, you have checked to make sure those laws and cases are still current and valid.  Your local law librarian can help you with this.

  • You seem to be seeing the same statutes, cases, and regulations over and over again.  When you start noticing that all of the sources you look at keep referring you back to the same statutes or the same cases, you may be ready to stop your research.