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Legal Research Process

What Is a Legal Research Guide?

A legal research guide is a “how-to” for finding the law. Guides vary widely in their scope, depth, area of the law covered, and may be in print or online. Guides can be generally divided into one of three kinds--those on:

  • a particular kind of resource (e.g., treatises),
  • a particular substantive area (e.g., family law), or
  • a particular jurisdiction (e.g., Texas).

Despite these differences, the goal remains the same of helping the user locate relevant secondary and primary authorities and assist in designing a research plan. (Related tools that may also be helpful are a pathfinder or bibliography, a list of writings and/or resources relating to a given subject.)

When to Use a Legal Research Guide

A researcher should look for a legal research guide toward the beginning of the legal research process. A relevant guide may not necessarily exist, but if one does, it will help keep you from reinventing the wheel.

How to Find Legal Research Guides in Print

Legal research guides in print vary in length, with some being articles published within journals while others are full-length books. Recommended ways to find them include:

  1. Ask a law librarian.
  2. Search a library's catalog. TALLONS is Tarlton's online catalog.
    • You can do a simple search keyword search for < research guide > and any other pertinent language to get started.
    • As you survey the records, you will notice linked subject headings within them; clicking on a subject heading will lead you to related materials. For instance, the subject heading for guides on Texas is Legal research -- Texas.
  3. Browse a library's reference section where research guides tend to be located; at Tarlton, the reference area is just inside the entrance of the main 2nd floor reading room.

How to Find Legal Research Guides Online

  1. Ask a law librarian.
  2. Check Tarlton's research guides page, which covers a range of topics.
  3. Search online for a "legal research guide," along with any other keywords to uncover other potential research guides. For a more tailored search, try an advanced search limiting your results to websites that have been recently updated and/or .edu domains.
  4. Search for law libraries' websites. Many law libraries author online research guides that are freely available. One strategy then is to search online for a law library likely to have produced a guide on the topic you need--say, a California law library for a guide on California law--and then browsing that library's website for a section on research guides.
  5. Use a specialized database. There are also some databases available that contain selected research guides and bibliographies, such as the Foreign Law Guide and HeinOnline's Spinelli's Law Librarian's Reference Shelf, which you can browse for additional resources. There is also LegalTrac, a database in which you can try using the advanced search, and limit the document type to "bibliography."

Strengths & Weaknesses of Different Kinds of Research Guides

Because legal research guides vary in their comprehensiveness and focus, your research needs at any given time dictate which guide is of most use to you.

As a general rule, printed guides are often more detailed than their online counterparts. Online legal research guides, by contrast, can be more cursory but can still be extremely helpful during the initial organizational phase of any research project. Online guides also have the advantage of linking to the resources discussed.

Bear in mind that currency is a concern here, as it is for any other legal research resource. Print research guides are typically not updated except by a new edition, so pay attention to the year that a print guide was published and double check to see if a newer one is available. In this regard, online legal research guides have the advantage of being easier to update and as a result are typically more current.