Legal Research – How to Find & Understand the Law

“Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law” by Attorney Stephen Elias and the Editors of Nolo is another book in the huge legal library published by Nolo, a publisher that prides itself on making the law accessible to everyone. I’m an attorney, and I still like the books put out by Nolo, especially the ones on areas I’m not as familiar with, but want a little knowledge. Nolo always delivers.

Not everyone can afford Lexis or Westlaw, the two biggest subscriber based on-line legal resources. In law school we had access to both, because both companies wanted to earn your loyalty for when you got out and started practicing. Many firms have one or the other, and I suppose large firms may subscribe to both. Even with access to one of these, I find that I can often find things faster and easier with free resources. Many states have statutes and such on-line these days. More and more are becoming available all the time.

That’s where the book “Legal Research” comes in. It provides easy to follow research methods to help you answer your legal questions. The book has sections for on-line research as well as information regarding law libraries for those who have access to one.

The book consists of 386 pages divided among ten information packed chapters. The chapters include:

One: Understanding the Basics of the Law. Brief descriptions of what the law is, sources of law, state versus federal law, and the court system. Too basic for an attorney, but for the layperson the book was written for, this is a good introduction.

Two: Finding Legal Resources. This chapter explains where legal information is located, primary and secondary sources, internet resources for legal topics, and legal research websites. It includes Lexis and Westlaw, but also other sites that are free. I like the tips and warnings through out the book as well. Good caution that not every opinion you find is good law. Obvious to someone who had it drilled into them during law school, but probably not known to many laypeople.

Three: Identifying Your Legal Issue. Things to know before you go looking, like is the case civil or criminal, figuring out the area of law you want to research, what resources will help you with what you need to find, and figuring out your legal research question. This is important, you want to know what you’re really looking for before you go searching.

Four: Finding and Using Secondary Sources. This chapter explores sources such as online resources (including a bit about deciding if reliable), self-help legal books, legal encyclopedias, form books, practice manuals, continuing legal education publications, law reviews, and so on. Many law firms will have a lot of these kinds of resources, and you will find even more at a law library. This chapter gives a brief overview of what these sources are.

Five: Finding and Using Constitutions, Statutes, Regulations, and Ordinances. These are the bulk of legislatively or administratively created law. This chapter explains how to find these resources and how to use them. It covers finding and using constitutions, finding federal statutes, finding state statutes, understanding them, finding regulations and other rules and ordinances. All of these are important depending on your particular issue. This chapter is a good introduction to this world of “laws” for those that are charting unfamiliar territory.

Six: Finding Cases. Some of our law is not found in statutes, but in the decisions of cases that have already been decided. These cases interpreted laws and are now the rule until legislature changes it, or another case overrules it. Roe v. Wade is an example of a famous case that is looked to regarding abortion law. This chapter helps the reader learn how to use citations to find cases, find cases on the internet, find cases in the law library.

Seven: Using Case Law. This chapter actually explains what a case is, how they are published, and how cases affect later disputes. If you matter relies on case law, this chapter will help you.

Eight: Validating Your Research. I pointed out the tip earlier, and this chapter goes further to help you make sure you have “good law.” It teaches you how to Shepardize a Case, a process we lawyers use to ensure the cases we are relying on are still good. If you are trying to make a case yourself, you must be sure you are relying on “good law.” These are the kinds of things lawyers know that many laypeople don’t.

Nine: Organizing and Putting Your Legal Research to Use. One thing clerks, legal interns, and associates spend a lot of time doing is research. Once you find the information, you must put what you find in written form for those that asked you to find it. This chapter provides the basics for writing a legal memorandum. Not as thorough as the semester class most first year law students take, but good for the non-lawyer. There is a brief section about going to court and the court process and about a couple pages on finding and working with a lawyer.

Ten: Research Hypothetical and Memorandum. Maybe it is because lawyer learn by case studies and examples that this chapter provides a research problem, how to discover the facts, and then how to approach the question to research. It’s very short, so it will give the non-lawyer a little example of how to look at the law and go about finding your answer.

The book chapters stop here on page 255. The next 100 plus pages is a glossary, which a person would not need if they have a legal dictionary. Nolo actually has a simple legal dictionary that won’t replace “Black’s” but is a good resource. Then there is a short appendix on topics and an index.

Overall, I think this book could be very valuable for the person who wants or needs to do legal research but does not know where to start. If you are forced to do-it-yourself, this guide can lead the way. It is a very good description of the legal research process for those without a law degree.

Dictionaries Are Important Reference Tools For Writers

It’s the little things that often get overlooked.

Writers feel they have to struggle to find the right word, almost as if the struggle itself somehow makes the discovery valid. But help is at hand, and it’s a lot closer than you think.

I’m talking about reference books, and dictionaries in particular. No matter how you go about the business of writing, reference materials are always important. They’re part of every writer’s toolkit, like a carpenter’s hammer and saw. And just like a carpenter, a writer can use these tools to construct a solid piece of prose, a short story, a poem, an article, a book or some web copy.

Dictionaries have been part of the writer’s palette since Dr. Samuel Johnson created A Dictionary of the English Language way back in the 1750s. Browse the reference section of any library or bookstore and you’ll find dictionaries covering a host of topics: languages, medicine, dreams, fictional characters, scrabble, finance, etc. And then there are rhyming dictionaries, multilingual dictionaries, legal dictionaries, dictionaries of symbols, cultural literacy, biblical imagery, philosophy and so on.

Most mainstream dictionaries have online presences these days, so it’s possible to access them without even reaching across to your bookcase. There are a few more exotic dictionaries out there, too, such as Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary – a fascinating tongue-in-cheek twist on the concept with some scathing definitions, including:

Wit, n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.

Variations come in all shapes and sizes, with titles like Who’s Who in Shakespeare (or Dickens), collections of this or that, and volumes named A Dictionary of the 20th Century, for instance. Of course, those lazy writers among us need only bookmark the site at and/or to have everything at hand. But there’s something about flipping through a book and landing on a page — particularly one with new words on it — that can’t be equalled.

I have a copy of The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary. It’s a massive tome, nicely bound with gilt-edged pages. I opened it at random and found this entry:

gyve, n. A fetter for the limbs of prisoners.

Pronounced jive, here’s a word I’d never heard before. Will I use it anywhere else? I’m not sure. But it conjures up a bunch of images. Like a group of convicts, gyve talking. It’s expanding my vocabulary and giving me story ideas at the same time. And that’s just one word on one page.

Forget writer’s block. If you own a good dictionary you’ll never be stuck for a word. You can even create stories or articles out of thin air just by choosing three words at random from different places in the book. They don’t necessarily have to be unfamiliar words, but sometimes putting three unrelated words together can help spark off an idea or two.

Legal Definitions That People Should Know

Knowing the law is difficult. I’m a lawyer and I have problems understanding it.

A lot of people probably don’t realize that lawyers spend an awful lot of time with their noses in books – statutes, case law, code, rules, regulations, etc. There is no end to the amount of reading that a lawyer is required to do. Furthermore, all of this reading takes place after law school. It’s called “continuing legal education.”

One area that some lawyers have problems with is knowing the exact, succinct definitions of common terms legal, “joint-legal custody”, “physical custody”, “spousal maintenance”, “mediation”, “marital property”, “division of marital assets”, etc. The list could go on-and-on.

I know that many of these words sound like they should be obvious. You might say to me: “why don’t you just go look in the dictionary?” Good point, I might answer. But which dictionary? A legal dictionary? Websters dictionary? An online dictionary?

I’ll let you in a little lawyer secret: the dictionaries listed above are often not very helpful. The problem with the definitions in dictionaries like those listed above is that they don’t contain the correct “legal” meaning that lawyers can use when representing a client before a court of law.

“So where can I find the correct legal definitions,” you might ask. The lawyer’s answer: in the law or “code” of you state. That’s right, the law changes from state-to-state and, sometimes, county-to-county. It is complicated stuff.

That is why many people just can’t do a very good representing themselves without a lawyer – they can’t be expected to know all the correct legal definitions. They can’t be expected to know that they can’t just look in a dictionary for the correct legal definitions. They certainly can’t be expected to know where the proper state law is and how to read it.

So what are some sources to research legal definitions on your own? A source I often use is the local law libraries in a particular county. I’m licensed to practice law in only one state, so I know that I need to find a law library within that state and, more likely, the county I live in. I won’t get into why you want to look in the county law library in this article. Suffice it to say that the legal definitions may change if I go outside the county.

Another good source of non-lawyer to look in when searching for proper legal definitions is the official state code that the legislature or other governmental body has placed on their webpage. BE CAREFUL: some of the law on those web pages is old and out-of-date – which means it is no longer valid. What? There is invalid law on the internet. Yes, my friend, and reading bad law will not make you a good lawyer. When searching for the law on the internet, make sure you look for legal dates on the law. It should say something like, “enacted on July __, 2011.” That way you know that it is likely current.

Bilingual Legal Dictionary

A good bilingual dictionary serves as an extremely useful tool for people who interact in at increasingly global workplace. I recently published a bilingual legal terminology dictionary. As a professional translator, I had to render an excellent reference to dictionary users, including Latin American terms. Being familiar with the cultural and legal-bound semantic fields of terms, law dictionaries made in Spain are not always useful given differences determined by the American context.

As an experienced translator, I collected more than forty-four thousand legal terms and phrases for a comprehensive bilingual dictionary. When using this reference, the user always has to consider the contexts and the meanings in the different branches of law.

Knowledge of comparative law in both English and Spanish and my work made me sensitive to the semantic fields of words. Thus, it is often difficult to find consistency in, for example, the legislation in different Latin American countries versus legislation in English-speaking countries. In other words, semantic differences are also observed in the different rules, codes, laws, regulations, etc. in Latin America, the United States, and other countries.

Yet, globalization forces us to seek the best and most appropriate terms to perfect legal instruments in different countries. For example, globalization is translated into Spanish as ‘mundializaci√≥n, internacionalizaci√≥n, globalizaci√≥n,’ as shown in this dictionary. However, every country has its particular preferred terms referring to the same concept.

In Spain there exists a tendency to continue using Castilian Spanish, whereas in Latin America the influence of the legal terms used in places like Miami, California, New York, etc is evident. Latin American Spanish borrows many English terms which are used by large Spanish-speaking communities. However, you will find some equivalent terms used in Spain as well.

Also, differences include words’ spellings. For example, the word cost is translated as ‘coste’ in Spain and ‘costo’ in Latin America. This Work is intended to provide a 21st century legal reference, which is required for a better understanding of the transactions conducted between nations. Translators, lawyers, paralegals, investors, managers, and law students should have this type of reference.