Friday, February 24, 2012

Basic Legal Research: How to Get Started

Have you ever needed to look up information about the law?  If so, you probably found that it's easier said than done.  Even thought the law affects everybody, it’s very complex, which means detailed legal research requires a great deal of training.  However, we don't think people should have to have a law degree to get a basic understanding of legal issues that effect them, so we've put together a guide to basic legal research.  It may seem complex, but that's because legal research is complex.  When it comes to law, we have to make a disclaimer:   

Library staff members aren’t trained attorneys, so we cannot give legal advice or perform in-depth legal research.  The resources below should be useful to those with legal questions, but they are no substitute for professional legal help.  Also, please be aware that general guides to US law may not accurately reflect the unique legal system of Louisiana.

Getting an Overview

When you're doing legal research, you can either look at primary sources (the text of the law itself), or secondary sources (books and articles about the law).  Secondary sources are good for getting an overview of a legal issue, but remember they aren’t the actual law.

If you want a quick overview of legal topic, it’s good to start by reading an encyclopedia article about it.  There are several good legal encyclopedias available.  Nolo’s Encyclopedia of Everyday Law is available at most TPL branches.  There is also the Gale Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, which available in print, and as an online resource, at  The multi-volume West’s Encyclopedia of American Law is available free online, along with a legal dictionary, at

If you want to learn about a legal topic in more depth, we have many books about particular legal issues.   Most of these have a Dewey Decimal number in the 340s, so you can find them all together in that section of the library.  Oceana Publications and NOLO both publish guides to legal issues for laypeople, and we have many books from both publishers.

Because the Louisiana legal system is so different from that of other states, it’s a good idea to consult a book specifically about Louisiana law.  Louisiana Legal Advisor is an overview of the law in this state, while Louisiana Family Law Guide focuses on divorce, custody, and other family law topics.  We also have some more technical books, called treatises, on Louisiana law in our legal reference section, but they are written for lawyers, and are more difficult to understand.  There is also a good website called, which offers basic explanations of various topics in Louisiana law.

Digging Deeper:  Primary Sources of Law

To research a legal issue in more depth, you will need to find and read the law itself.  To do this you need a basic understanding of where the law comes from, and how to look it up.  The Louisiana Law Library has on online introduction to legal research at:  Cornell University Law Library has a more in-depth guide:  A good book to consult is Legal Research : How to Find & Understand the Law, available in the reference section at most of our branches.
The law isn’t written down in one single place.  Laws are made at different levels of government and published in many different places.  At the federal and state level, law comes from three basic sources:  statutes, or laws passed by the legislature; regulations (or administrative laws), which are issued by government agencies, and case law–the opinions of courts.

The most fundamental source of law in the United States is the US Constitution.   While there are thousands of laws that cover issues never mentioned in the Constitution, all laws – from the federal to the local level – must be in compliance with the Constitution.  The US Constitution can be found online at the National Archives website:   States also have their own constitutions, which establish the basic legal framework for that state.  The Louisiana constitution can be found online at the Louisiana Legislature’s website:

Legislation:  Statute Law
As Congress passes new laws, they are compiled in a cumulative set of documents called Statutes at Large.  These are arranged chronologically, which makes them inconvenient to search.  This is why they are also arranged by subject in a set of documents called the United States Code (U.S.C).  The consists of 51 volumes, each of which deals with a different subject (bankruptcy, criminal law, etc).  You can find the U.S.C online at several websites.  Here’s a link to the government’s online version:

Many laws are known by popular names (e.g. theTaft-Hartley Act).  The Cornell Legal Information Institute’s website has a tool for looking up federal laws by popular name:  Companies like West and Lexis-Nexis publish annotated versions of the code, which means they include commentary and relevant cases, along with the text of the law itself.   The Westlaw database, which is available in the main library, includes these annotated codes.  These offer hyperlinks to related cases and other legal resources on the same topic.  If you would like to use Westlaw, ask a staff member in the reference department, and we will log you on.

Louisiana law is different any other state.  Our legal system is called a civil law system.  Civil law originated with Roman law, and relies more on codes, and less on court decisions, than common law systems , which rely heavily on court precedents.  All other states, and the federal government, have a common law system based on the English legal tradition.  The legal code of Louisiana is divided into several different compilations.  They can all be found at the Louisiana legislature’s website:  There are also annotated versions of Louisiana legal codes.  These can be found in Westlaw, or in print sets at the main library.

Agency Regulations:  Administrative Law
In addition to statute law passed by Congress, there is also administrative law; the body of regulations issued by federal agencies.  As regulations are issued, they are published chronologically in the Federal Register.  Then they are arranged by subject and compiled in a publication called the Code of Federal Regulations, or C.F.R.  The C.F.R. is available online at

States also have administrative law issued by their agencies.  The Louisiana equivalent of the Federal Register is the Louisiana Register, and the equivalent of the Code of Federal Regulations is called the Louisiana Administrative Code.  Both can be found online at the Office of the State Register website:

The Courts:  Case Law
When a case is brought to court, the judge interprets the law to see how it applies in that particular situation.  Cases are first tried in trial courts.  The decisions of trial court judges may be appealed to a higher court, called an appellate court. These decisions may be further appealed to the Supreme Court.  The federal government and most states, including Louisiana, have this hierarchical system of courts.  Legal opinions by higher courts become law themselves, because they dictate how the law should be interpreted in the jurisdiction of that court.  Law based on court cases is known as case law, or common law.   Case law is compiled in serial publications called reporters.   For example, US Supreme Court decisions can be found in a reporter called United States Reports.  Many of the most important reporters are published by the West company.  West adds additional information, summarizing the case and cross-referencing other cases on similar topics.  While this additional information is copyrighted, the text of the court cases are public domain, and can often be found online.  Today, many courts publish their opinions directly online.  One good place to find case law is

As with other kinds of chronological legal publications, it can be difficult to locate laws in reporters.  To make finding cases easier, West publishes summaries of case law called case digests, which organize cases by topic.  West’s system of legal topics, in which each topic and subtopic is given a number, is known as the West Key Number System.  This system is also used in the WestLaw database.

The decisions of state courts in Louisiana are compiled in a reporter called the Southern Reporter, which also includes court cases from Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi.  Louisiana court cases can also be found in Westlaw.  You can find Louisiana Supreme Court opinions at has a page with links to all the major federal and state courts in Louisiana:   Many of the state courts’ web pages allow you to search opinions.

Local Laws
In addition to state and federal law, cities and parishes also produce local law, often called local ordinances, or municipal codes.  The Terrebonne Parish Consolidated government has a Code of Ordinances, which is available online here:

We hope this guide will help you find the legal answers you're looking for.  If you have any questions, give us a call at 876-5861, ex. 2.  For more links to great legal resources, click the link below:

Further Resources

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