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Legal Research Demystified: What You Need to Know


What is legal research? Legal research is the process of identifying and retrieving information necessary to support legal decision-making. This can include locating statutes, regulations, and case law that apply to your specific legal issue.

  • Key Details: Gather critical info about your legal issue.
  • Establish Goals: Pinpoint what you need to find out.
  • Precedent: Understand what cases control in your jurisdiction.
  • Sources: Identify the types of legal documents you need.

Legal research is a cornerstone of the practice of law. It empowers your arguments and gives substance to your legal work, ensuring better outcomes for your clients. Whether you’re just starting out or you’re an experienced attorney, effective legal research can save you time, reduce stress, and improve your confidence in the courtroom.

I’m Chris Lyle, a seasoned attorney driven by the desire to enhance the legal industry. As a partner at Visionary Law Group and co-founder of CompFox, I’ve spent my career focused on improving legal research methods to better serve attorneys and their clients.

importance of legal research infographic - what is legal research infographic process-5-steps-informal

What is Legal Research?

Legal research is the process of identifying and retrieving the information necessary to support legal decision-making. In simple terms, it means finding the laws and legal precedents that apply to your case. This process is vital to crafting strong legal arguments and ensuring better outcomes for clients.

Primary Sources in Legal Research

Primary sources are the bedrock of legal research. These are the actual laws and legal decisions that bind courts, governments, and individuals. They include:

  • Constitutions: The fundamental principles and established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed.
  • Statutes: Laws enacted by legislative bodies like Congress or state legislatures.
  • Regulations: Rules made by federal or state agencies to carry out statutes.
  • Case Law: Court opinions or decisions issued by federal or state courts.

For example, if you’re dealing with a constitutional issue, you would start by looking at the relevant sections of the U.S. Constitution or your state’s constitution. If it’s a statutory issue, you would look up the specific law passed by the legislature.

Secondary Sources in Legal Research

Secondary sources help explain and interpret primary sources. They don’t have binding authority, but they are incredibly useful for understanding the law and finding primary sources. Examples include:

  • Law Reviews and Journals: Scholarly articles that provide in-depth analysis of legal issues.
  • Legal Dictionaries: Definitions of legal terms.
  • Legal Treatises: Books that provide comprehensive overviews of specific areas of law.
  • Legal Encyclopedias: Summaries of legal principles and case law, such as American Jurisprudence or Corpus Juris Secundum.

Using secondary sources can save you a lot of time. They often summarize the law and cite the primary sources you need to look up.

Legal Research - what is legal research

Legal research is more than just finding laws. It’s about understanding how those laws apply to the facts of your case. For instance, if you’re working on a personal injury case, you might start with a legal encyclopedia to get an overview, then move on to case law to see how courts have interpreted relevant statutes.

In the next section, we’ll dive into the legal research process, breaking it down into manageable steps to help you find what you need quickly and efficiently.

The Legal Research Process

Step 1: Identifying the Facts

Before diving into databases, you need to identify the essential facts of your case. Ask yourself the “who, what, why, when, where, and how” questions. Write everything down. Even if a detail seems minor, it might become important later.

Use a case management tool to record these facts. This helps you keep everything organized and ensures you don’t miss anything crucial. Think of this as laying the groundwork for your research. Skipping this step can lead to wasted time and missed information.

Step 2: Creating a Research Plan

Next, create a research plan. This involves pinpointing the legal issues you need to address. What specific laws or precedents are relevant to your case? Define your terms of art and legal issues clearly.

Use filters to narrow down your search. Focus on the jurisdiction where your case will be tried. This helps you stay on track and avoid getting overwhelmed by irrelevant information. A well-defined research plan saves time and keeps you focused.

Step 3: Gathering Sources

With your research plan in hand, start gathering sources. You’ll need both primary sources (like constitutions, statutes, and case law) and secondary sources (like law reviews and legal encyclopedias).

Use legal databases such as Westlaw or LexisNexis to find reliable sources. These databases offer a wealth of information, including court opinions and legal journals. Make sure to check multiple sources to ensure you have a well-rounded understanding of the issue.

Step 4: Ensuring “Good” Law

Finally, make sure the law you found is still valid. This is called Shepardizing or using a citator tool. These tools help you check if a case has been overturned, reaffirmed, or otherwise affected by subsequent rulings.

Double-check your case citations to ensure they are up-to-date. This final check is crucial for making sure your legal argument stands on solid ground. Neglecting this step can lead to citing outdated or invalid law, which can weaken your case.

By following these steps—identifying the facts, creating a research plan, gathering sources, and ensuring “good” law—you can streamline your legal research process and build a stronger case.

Tools and Resources for Legal Research

Legal research can be complex, but the right tools can make it much easier. Let’s look at some of the best free and commercial tools available for legal research.

Free Legal Research Tools

Free tools are a great way to start your research without spending money. Here are some top options:

  • Google Scholar: This tool offers a free, searchable database of federal and state case law. It’s excellent for quick searches and getting a broad overview.

  • Legal Information Institute (LII): Run by Cornell Law School, LII provides free access to legal materials, including the U.S. Code, Supreme Court opinions, and more. It’s a valuable resource for understanding the basics.

  • CanLII: The Canadian Legal Information Institute offers free access to Canadian case law, statutes, and regulations. It’s an essential tool for anyone dealing with Canadian law.

These free tools are excellent starting points, but they may lack the depth and advanced features of commercial services.

Commercial Legal Research Tools

For those looking for more comprehensive features and advanced search capabilities, CompFox offers a robust solution. CompFox is designed to cater specifically to the needs of legal professionals, providing access to a vast array of primary and secondary sources with an intuitive interface and advanced search options. This makes it a preferred choice for many legal professionals seeking efficiency and precision in their research.

Using CompFox can significantly enhance your research efficiency and accuracy, making it a worthwhile investment for many legal professionals.

Building Legal Research Skills

Tips for Effective Legal Research

Becoming proficient at legal research is a journey. Here are some practical tips to help you along the way.

Law School and Legal Research Classes

Start Early: If you’re in law school, take advantage of classes focused on legal research. These classes will teach you the fundamentals and introduce you to essential tools and databases.

Real-World Experience: Look for internships or part-time jobs where you can apply what you’ve learned. Working with real cases can give you invaluable experience.

Practice and Continuous Learning

Constant Practice: Legal research is a skill that improves with practice. Regularly working on different cases will help you become faster and more accurate.

Stay Updated: The legal field is always evolving. Keep up with new laws, regulations, and case precedents. Subscribing to legal journals or blogs can help you stay informed.

Time Management

Plan Your Research: Before diving in, make a research plan. Identify the key issues and terms of art. This will help you stay focused and save time.

Set Deadlines: Break your research into smaller tasks and set deadlines for each. This approach can prevent last-minute rushes and ensure thorough research.

Accuracy and Efficiency

Double-Check Sources: Always verify the reliability of your sources. Use tools like Shepardizing to ensure you’re citing “good” law.

Organize Your Findings: Use tools like legal memoranda to compile your research. This helps in identifying gaps and ensures nothing is overlooked.

Technology Use

Leverage AI Tools: Modern AI tools like CompFox can streamline your research process. These tools can quickly sift through vast amounts of data to find the most relevant information.

Cloud-Based Software: Use cloud-based fact-management software like Clio Manage. It helps you keep all your research organized and accessible from anywhere.

By applying these tips, you can improve your legal research skills, making your work more efficient and accurate. This not only helps in building stronger cases but also in better serving your clients.

Frequently Asked Questions about Legal Research

What is the meaning of legal research?

Legal research is the process of identifying and retrieving information necessary to support legal decision-making. It involves finding and assembling authorities, such as statutes, regulations, and court opinions, that apply to the facts of a case. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, legal research is “the finding and assembling of authorities that bear on a question of law.”

What does a legal researcher do?

A legal researcher gathers and analyzes legal information to support legal decision-making. This involves:

  • Identifying legal issues: Understanding the core legal questions that need to be addressed.
  • Gathering sources: Finding relevant statutes, regulations, case law, and secondary sources.
  • Analyzing findings: Interpreting the gathered information to apply it effectively to the case at hand.
  • Communicating results: Presenting the findings in a clear and organized manner, often through legal memos or briefs.

Legal researchers play a crucial role in ensuring that attorneys and clients have the most accurate and current legal information available.

What are the two types of legal research?

Legal research can be divided into two main types:

  1. Primary Research: This involves looking up primary sources of law, which include constitutions, statutes, regulations, and case law. These are the actual laws and legal precedents that are binding and must be followed.

  2. Secondary Research: This involves looking up secondary sources, such as law reviews, legal dictionaries, treatises, and encyclopedias. These sources provide commentary, analysis, and summaries of the law but are not binding. They are valuable for understanding the context and implications of primary sources.

Understanding both types of research is crucial for thorough and effective legal research.


Understanding what is legal research is crucial for anyone in the legal field. It’s not just about finding answers but about finding the right answers efficiently and accurately. Legal research helps us develop strong cases, support legal decisions, and ultimately, achieve the best outcomes for our clients.

The Importance of Legal Research

Legal research is the backbone of effective legal practice. It ensures that we are informed about the latest laws, precedents, and legal interpretations. Without thorough research, we risk missing critical information that could make or break a case. Good legal research provides the foundation for sound legal arguments and informed decision-making.

CompFox: Your AI-Powered Legal Research Partner

Here at CompFox, we understand the challenges and time constraints faced by legal professionals. That’s why we’ve developed an AI-enhanced case law research system specifically for California Workers’ Compensation cases. Our tool uses state-of-the-art AI technology to streamline your legal research, saving you time and reducing stress.

Efficiency and Precision

With CompFox, you can conduct precise and comprehensive research in a fraction of the time it would take manually. Our AI-powered tool scours vast amounts of data, delivering the most relevant cases quickly and accurately. This not only boosts your productivity but also enhances the quality of your legal work.

Embrace the Future of Legal Research

Legal research doesn’t have to be a tedious and time-consuming process. By leveraging AI-powered tools like CompFox, you can focus more on strategic thinking and less on manual searching. Embrace the future of legal research and make the most out of your precious time.

Explore CompFox to see how our AI-enhanced tool can revolutionize your legal research process.

By understanding the importance of legal research and utilizing advanced tools like CompFox, we can ensure efficiency, precision, and success in our legal endeavors.


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