Legal research

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Legal research is "the process of identifying and retrieving information necessary to support legal decision-making. In its broadest sense, legal research includes each step of a course of action that begins with an analysis of the facts of a problem and concludes with the application and communication of the results of the investigation." [1]

Law System of rules and guidelines, generally backed by governmental authority

Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been defined both as "the science of justice" and "the art of justice". Law regulates and ensures that individuals or a community adhere to the will of the state. State-enforced laws can be made by a collective legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that may elect to accept alternative arbitration to the normal court process. The formation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.


The processes of legal research vary according to the country and the legal system involved. However, legal research generally involves tasks such as: [2]

  1. Finding primary sources of law, or primary authority, in a given jurisdiction (cases, statutes, regulations, etc.).
  2. Searching secondary authority (for example, law reviews, legal dictionaries, legal treatises, and legal encyclopedias such as American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum), for background information about a legal topic.
  3. Searching non-legal sources for investigative or supporting information.

Legal research is performed by anyone with a need for legal information, including lawyers, law librarians, and paralegals. Sources of legal information range from printed books, to free legal research websites (like Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute,, Martindale Hubbell or CanLII) and information portals to fee database vendors such as, Wolters Kluwer, LexisNexis, Westlaw, VLex and Bloomberg Law. Law libraries around the world provide research services to help their patrons find the legal information they need in law schools, law firms and other research environments. Many law libraries and institutions provide free access to legal information on the web, either individually or via collective action, such as with the Free Access to Law Movement.

Legal Information Institute legal research group at Cornell Law School

The Legal Information Institute (LII) is a non-profit, public service of Cornell Law School that provides no-cost access to current American and international legal research sources online at The organization is a pioneer in the delivery of legal information online. Founded in 1992 by Peter Martin and Tom Bruce, LII was the first law site developed on the internet. LII electronically publishes on the Web the U.S. Code, U.S. Supreme Court opinions, Uniform Commercial Code, the US Code of Federal Regulations, several Federal Rules, and a variety of other American primary law materials. LII also provides access to other national and international sources, such as treaties and United Nations materials. According to its website, the LII serves over 30 million unique visitors per year.

The Canadian Legal Information Institute is a non-profit organization created and funded by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada on behalf of its 14 member societies. CanLII is a member of the Free Access to Law Movement, which includes the primary stakeholders involved in free, open publication of law throughout the world.

Wolters Kluwer N.V. is a global information services company. The company is headquartered in Alphen aan den Rijn, Netherlands. Wolters Kluwer in its current form was founded in 1987 with a merger between Kluwer Publishers and Wolters Samsom. The company serves legal, business, tax, accounting, finance, audit, risk, compliance, and healthcare markets. It operates in over 150 countries.

A number of books are available for those wishing to undertake legal research in the UK context. [3] [4] [5]

Databases and software tools


Although many jurisdictions publish laws online, [6] case law is often accessed through specialty online databases. [7] Free-to-access services, through the free law movement, include: Australasian Legal Information Institute, British and Irish Legal Information Institute, CanLII, Legal Information Institute, LexML Brasil, World Legal Information Institute, [8] and Jurispedia. [9] Google offers a free, searchable database of federal and state case law as part of Google Scholar. [10] [11] [12]

Australasian Legal Information Institute institution operated jointly by the Faculties of Law of the University of Technology Sydney and the University of New South Wales

The Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) is an institution operated jointly by the Faculties of Law of the University of Technology Sydney and the University of New South Wales. Its public policy purpose is to improve access to justice through access to legal information.

The British and Irish Legal Information Institute provides legal information, and especially reports of cases decided by courts, in the United Kingdom generally. Decisions from England and Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the European Union, and from the European Court of Human Rights are put online. It is a partial online database of British and Irish legislation, case law, law reform reports, treaties and some legal scholarship.

LexML Brasil a project of Brazils Electronic Government initiative

LexML Brasil is a project of Brazil's Electronic Government initiative. Its objective is to establish open data systems, integrate work processes and share data, in the context of identifying and structuring executive, legislative and judiciary documents. The LexML-BR standards define a set of simple technology-neutral electronic protocols and representations, based on XML and HTTP ecossistem.


Commercial services for legal research include both primary and secondary sources. Commercial services can be country-specific, international or comparative. As of 2010, commercial legal research tools in the United States generated an estimated $8 billion in revenues per year. [13]

Primary source Original source of information created at the time under study

In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Similar definitions can be used in library science, and other areas of scholarship, although different fields have somewhat different definitions. In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document written by such a person.

Some governments also provide access to certain resources through paid databases, such as the United States PACER law system.

Legal research is known to take much time and effort, and access to online legal research databases can be costly. Consequently, with due consideration given to ethical concerns, law firms and other practitioners may turn to third-party legal research providers to outsource their legal research needs. [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

This page is a glossary of library and information science.

A citation index is a kind of bibliographic index, an index of citations between publications, allowing the user to easily establish which later documents cite which earlier documents. A form of citation index is first found in 12th-century Hebrew religious literature. Legal citation indexes are found in the 18th century and were made popular by citators such as Shepard's Citations (1873). In 1960, Eugene Garfield's Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) introduced the first citation index for papers published in academic journals, first the Science Citation Index (SCI), and later the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI). The first automated citation indexing was done by CiteSeer in 1997. Other sources for such data include Google Scholar and Elsevier's Scopus.

Westlaw online legal research service for lawyers and legal professionals in the United States and the United Kingdom

Westlaw is an online legal research service for lawyers and legal professionals in the United States and the United Kingdom, and is a product of Thomson Reuters. In addition, it provides proprietary database services. Information resources on Westlaw include more than 40,000 databases of case law, state and federal statutes, administrative codes, newspaper and magazine articles, public records, law journals, law reviews, treatises, legal forms and other information resources.


JurisPedia is a wiki encyclopedia of academic law in many languages, currently available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Spanish and Dutch. It was started in October 2004, inspired in part by Wikipedia and the Enciclopedia Libre. JurisPedia runs on the MediaWiki software, but it is not a Wikimedia Foundation project.

Google Scholar academic search service by Google

Google Scholar is a freely accessible web search engine that indexes the full text or metadata of scholarly literature across an array of publishing formats and disciplines. Released in beta in November 2004, the Google Scholar index includes most peer-reviewed online academic journals and books, conference papers, theses and dissertations, preprints, abstracts, technical reports, and other scholarly literature, including court opinions and patents. While Google does not publish the size of Google Scholar's database, scientometric researchers estimated it to contain roughly 389 million documents including articles, citations and patents making it the world's largest academic search engine in January 2018. Previously, the size was estimated at 160 million documents as of May 2014. An earlier statistical estimate published in PLOS ONE using a Mark and recapture method estimated approximately 80–90% coverage of all articles published in English with an estimate of 100 million. This estimate also determined how many documents were freely available on the web.

LexisNexis Quicklaw is a Canadian electronic legal research database that provides court decisions from all levels, news reports, provincial and federal statutes, journals, and other legal commentary. It also offers a case citator and case digests. In 2002 Quicklaw was purchased by LexisNexis and is now a subsidiary of LexisNexis Canada.


HeinOnline (HOL) is a commercial internet database service launched in 2000 by William S. Hein & Co., Inc., a Buffalo, New York publisher specializing in legal materials. The company began in Buffalo, New York, in 1961 and is currently based in nearby Getzville, NY. In 2013 WSH Co. was the 33rd largest private company in western New York, with revenues of around $33 million and more than seventy employees.

Law library library devoted to law

A law library is a special library used by law students, lawyers, judges and their law clerks, historians and other scholars of legal history in order to research the law. Law libraries are also used by people who draft or advocate for new laws, e.g. legislators and others who work in state government, local government, and legislative counsel offices or the U.S. Office of Law Revision Counsel and lobbying professionals. Self-represented, or pro se, litigants also use law libraries.

The Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) is the international movement and organization devoted to providing free online access to legal information such as case law, legislation, treaties, law reform proposals and legal scholarship. The movement began in 1992 with the creation of the Legal Information Institute (LII) by Thomas R. Bruce and Peter W. Martin at Cornell Law School. Some later FALM projects incorporate Legal Information Institute or LII in their names, usually prefixed by a national or regional identifier.

PACER (law)

PACER is an electronic public access service of United States federal court documents. It allows users to obtain case and docket information from the United States district courts, United States courts of appeals, and United States bankruptcy courts. The system is managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in accordance with the policies of the Judicial Conference, headed by the Chief Justice of the United States. As of 2013, it holds more than 500 million documents.

Legal research is the process of identifying and retrieving information to support legal arguments and decisions. Finding relevant legal information can be challenging and may involve the use of electronic research tools as well as printed books and materials. However, many resources that are useful for legal research are fee-based, and many are not easily accessible.

Avvo is an online marketplace for legal services, that provides lawyer referrals and access to a database of legal information consisting primarily of previously answered questions. Lawyer profiles may include client reviews, disciplinary actions, peer endorsements, and lawyer-submitted legal guides.

Computer-assisted legal research (CALR) or computer-based legal research is a mode of legal research that uses databases of court opinions, statutes, court documents, and secondary material. Electronic databases make large bodies of case law easily available. Databases also have additional benefits, such as Boolean searches, evaluating case authority, organizing cases by topic, and providing links to cited material. Databases are available through paid subscription or for free.

A digital library, digital repository, or digital collection, is an online database of digital objects that can include text, still images, audio, video, or other digital media formats. Objects can consist of digitized content like print or photographs, as well as originally produced digital content like word processor files or social media posts. In addition to storing content, digital libraries provide means for organizing, searching, and retrieving the content contained in the collection.

Bloomberg Law is a subscription-based service for online legal research. The service, which Bloomberg L.P. introduced in 2009, provides legal content, proprietary company information and news information to attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals. More specifically, this commercial legal and business technology platform integrates Bloomberg L.P. news with Bloomberg BNA's primary and secondary legal content and business development tools.

Public Law Libraries (U.S.) type of law library in the United States

Public law libraries provide access to primary legal sources and secondary sources used in legal matters. In most U.S. states, public law libraries are part of the trial court system, a department of the state or county government, or an independent local government agency managed by a board of trustees. Public law libraries serve several user groups with different information needs: judges and their support staff, attorneys in all types of practice, and the general public.


  1. Barkan, Steven M.; Bintliff, Barbara; Whisner, Mary. Fundamentals of Legal Research (10 ed.). Foundation Press. p. 1. ISBN   1609300564 . Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  2. Larson, Aaron (30 May 2016). "How to Perform Legal Research". ExpertLaw. Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  3. Clinch, Peter (2001). Using a law library : A student's guide to legal research skills. London: Blackstone.
  4. Holborn, Guy (2001). Butterworths legal research guide (2nd ed.). London: Butterworths.
  5. Knowles, J; Thomas, P (2001). Dane & Thomas : How to use a law library : An introduction to legal skills. (4th ed). London: Sweet and Maxwell.
  6. e.g., "". The National Archives. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  7. "Guide to Law Online". Library of Congress. 22 August 2016. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  8. "WorldLII". World Legal Information Institute. AustLII. Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  9. "Jurispedia" . Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  10. Black, Nicole (June 23, 2017). "Legal research: Google Scholar leads the pack". Minnesota Lawyer.
  11. "Using Google Scholar for Case Law Research". Maryland Courts. Maryland State Law Library. Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  12. "Free Law Search Engines" . Retrieved July 1, 2019.
  13. Adams, Russell (8 July 2010). "Bloomberg Hangs New Shingle". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  14. Cohen, Adam I.; Lender, David J. (2016). Electronic Discovery: Law and Practice. Aspen Publishers Online. p. SA13-32. ISBN   1454815604.