Legal Research Basics

Chris J. Hardin
March 29, 2011 — 1,767 views  
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Legal research is one of the aspects of law that a paralegal absolutely needs to be incredibly proficient in. It is also one of those things that takes time and practice to fully master. It also helps to enjoy performing legal research. It is very important to be able to find the law more than it is to know the law. Proficiency in legal research is the foundation for a successful career as a paralegal. If you cannot perform legal research tasks accurately and efficiently, you will not be a successful paralegal.

There are basically two ways to perform legal research. The first one was the initial way to perform legal research and that was to use the law library and look through books of cases written on paper. The other, and the more technologically savvy and modern is to perform legal research online using Westlaw, Loislaw or some other program. This is the choice of almost every law firm and is the quickest way to perform your research.

To be able to perform legal research the paralegal must know the sources of law in the United States. The first is previous cases or common law. Common law is defined as that body of law that develops and derives through judicial decisions as distinguished from statutes or constitution by Blacks Law Dictionary. Judges follow and use case law to determine current disputes. The concept is called stare decisis pronounced star-ee diss-eye-sis. The doctrine of stare decisis means that once courts have announced a principle of law, they will follow it in the future in cases that are substantially similar.

The next source of law is contained in constitutions and statutes. A constitution sets forth the fundamental law for a nation or a state. It is the document that sets forth the principles relating to organization and regulation of a federal or state government. In the United States it is considered the supreme law of the land. A statute, or law, is a law passed by a legislative body.

A third source of law is administrative regulations. Administrative agencies include Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FDA, OSHA and the like. The agencies perform two functions. They act as a legislature by making rules and regulations that bind us and they act as a judiciary by hearing disputes and rendering decisions.

The fourth source of law in the United States is the Executive Branch. The executive branch creates laws in three ways. The branch creates treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Secondly, the president can issue executive orders to regulate and direct federal agencies and officials. Thirdly, the executive branch exerts influence on the law through policies on enforcing laws.

These are the sources of law in the United States legal system. From these sources comes every rule or law that must be abided by. Out of all the great multitude of legal authorities, they can be classified as either primary authority or secondary authority.

Primary authorities are official pronouncements of the law by the executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch. The key primary authorities are cases, constitutions, statutes and administrative regulations. Primary sources are those created by a governmental entity. If a legal authority does not fall within one of the previously mentioned categories, it is a secondary authority.

Secondary authorities consist of legal encyclopedias, law review articles, books or other treatises dealing with legal issues, law dictionaries, annotations about the law, or expert opinions. The secondary authorities are not the law but rather provide comment, discussion, and explanation of the primary authorities and help you locate the primary authorities. Keep in mind that the purpose of secondary authorities is to explain the primary authorities and locate the primary authorities that must be followed by the court.


Chris J. Hardin