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Doing Legal Research


How to Start Doing Legal Research

Doing legal research to find the answer to your legal problem can be easy or hard or somewhere in between. There is no way to tell until you start doing the research, so take a deep breath and dive in.

Start by turning your legal problem into a question. Use your own words. Here are some examples:

  • Can my landlord kick me out because I make too much noise?
  • Can I get unemp​loyment if I get fired?

First, try to decide what area of law your question fits into. For example, the first question relates to Landlord-Tenant or Housing law. The second category relates to Employment or Unemployment Law. Looking at the other sections of this website may help you fit your question to a specific area of law.

Then try to find the words the law uses for your problem. These words will probably more formal than the words we use in day to day life. For example, a law would use the word “evict” instead of “kick me out” and would use either “terminate” or “discharge” instead of “fired”  Looking at the other sections of this website or our glossary​ may also help you translate day to day language into legal language.

Finally, pick a type of law and look for the answer to your legal problem. To make sure you are finding everything, it is probably a good idea to look at each type of law.

As you research, write down where you looked and what you found.The best answer will be a statement about the law from New Jersey that applies to the who, what, when, where and why (lawyers call these the facts) of your legal problem. This statement can be found in a statute, a case, a regulation, or a municipal ordinance. The answer may be in a yes/no form or may be a list of factors.

The reason New Jersey is in bold is to show that you should try to find the law from New Jersey, not from another state. Sometimes you may need to find federal law instead of state law. The best way to figure this out is to check a secondary source by the area of law your question fits in.

Why Use a Library (and why use books?)

Thanks to the web, you do not need to go to a library or books to do legal research. But there are still good reasons for going to a library, and there are still good reasons for using books.

Why go to a library to do legal research? Many libraries have computers with web access and printers that are available to the public. Libraries also have reference librarians. In law libraries, the librarian frequently has a law degree. Librarians cannot tell you what the law means or how the law applies to your legal problem. But reference librarians can and will help you find sources that will tell you what the law means or help you decide how the law applies to your legal problem.

Libraries also have books. Some books give the big picture for a legal topic. Looking at a book can be helpful when you don’t know anything about a legal topic and don’t know where to start to do legal research. 

Using books to do legal research can sometimes be easier and faster than using the web, especially if you are looking at statutes and regulations. You can use the table of contents or the index of a book, arranged in alphabetical order, to browse until you find a section that might have something to do with your legal problem. Find the place where the section is located and then flip to the right place in a book.

Finally, some books about the law are written by lawyers who are experts in that legal topic. This type of book is called a treatise. Treatises will frequently say what the law is/means and will list cases, statutes and regulations to back up what they say.  

Finding the Right Library

Libraries collect books about the law. Some collect more books than others. If you need a library, check your local public library first. You may find exactly what you need. Some colleges and universities have books about the law, and some county courthouses have law libraries.

In New Jersey, the State Law Library is open to the public:

The State Library is located at:

185 West State Street
Trenton, NJ 08625-0520
Library phone: (609) 278-2640 x102

When you go to a law library, ask where the reference desk is. Once you get to the reference desk ask if they have a map to tell you where the different books are kept. You should also ask if they have guides or pathfinders to help you find information on different topics.

Using the Web For Legal Research

There are many good websites with accurate legal information. You will be able to find cases, statutes, and regulations on the web.

Just as books have their good points, the web has its advantages over using books. When you search electronically on the Internet, the computer finds all of the cases or statutes at once instead of having to go through the books one at a time.

Another advantage of using the web is that the law may change but the book may not. Updating law on the web can happen more quickly.

Doing legal research on the Internet has some disadvantages that have to do with searching the Internet for information on any topic. Remember when you put words in a search engine, the search engine has its own way of using the words. Make sure you know what that way is (by reading the help section). Remember that no matter how good your search is, the Internet is so vast that you will get many hits, some of them duplicates and some no good at all. Be prepared to be patient and always look past the first page of results.

Doing legal research on the Internet has a disadvantage that has to do with publishing on the Internet. Just as there are many good websites with accurate legal information, there are bad websites with incorrect legal information.  There are also websites created by attorneys to market their services; these websites may be biased. Finally, there are websites that are created and never updated again. Try to see if you can find the same answer on more than one website before you use the information. This suggestion is useful when you are researching in books.

Here are some good websites for finding general information on a legal problem:

Here are some good websites for finding information about the law of other states:

Here are some good web sites for finding New Jersey and federal law on the web:

How to Know if the Law is Still Good Law

Law changes. The correct answer to a legal problem may not be the right answer today. For example, a court can change its decision in a case by overruling the decision. A legislature can unpass/repeal a statute. A court can decide that a statute does not follow a statute (is “unconstitutional”). For that reason, it is VERY IMPORTANT to check to see if the legal information you found is still “good law.”

One advantage of using books (instead of the Web) especially when you are looking at statutes is that books have pocket parts/supplements to update them. Look in the pocket part/supplement to see if the citation to your legal information is listed and discussed.

You should also check citations to any cases or statutes you find in a citation checker. A citation checker will list each case or statute that has discussed your case or statute and explain if the case or statute was discussed in a positive way (think green light) or discussed negatively (think red light). Lawyers call this “shepardizing” because Shepards is a well-known citation checker.

When to Stop Doing Legal Research

Knowing when you have done enough legal research can be hard. Here are some suggestions to help you decide.

You should stop doing legal research if you have run out of time because of a court’s deadline. Meeting a court’s deadline is more important than doing perfect legal research because of what could happen if you do not meet the deadline.

You can stop doing legal research if you find the same legal information, cases, statutes, regulations, and rules over and over again.

You can stop doing legal research if you have checked the legal information you have found to see if it is good law and it is.