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Legal research refers to the process of searching reference material to find the answer to a given legal question. Legal research is routinely conducted by paralegals, attorneys and other legal professionals. It can be conducted electronically or through the use of book materials, and it plays a vital role in the preparation of a legal case.
In the United States and in many other case law systems, the law is a complex and vast field made up of legislation on the state and federal level, judicial opinions, and agency decisions. While the statutes and formal bills are codified in code books, case law — or law made by judges — is found in the context of legal case transcripts that are published in numerous court reports. The body of law is constantly evolving and changing, as judges decide new cases — setting new precedent — and legislatures pass new laws.
When a legal issue arises, such as a lawsuit or an accusation of a crime or a family court dispute, it is important to understand the state of the law on that given issue. For example, if a person was having a dispute over whether his signature on a contract was enough to bind him to comply with the contract, it would be important to conduct legal research to uncover the laws regarding what constitutes a legally binding contract. The applicable rule of law that determined whether his signature was enough to bind him might be found in a state or federal court's ruling on a similar issue, or might be found in state or federal legislation dealing with contracts and signatures on contracts. All of these sources of law would have to be examined to predict how the court would be likely to rule in the client's situation.
To conduct legal research, an individual can refer to primary or secondary sources. Primary sources are those sources that will be binding in a court, such as references to case law or to a statute. Secondary sources are resources that are not binding and that cannot be referenced in court documents, but which provide a person with a good idea of where to look to find binding sources. A secondary source might be a Restatement of the Law, which is a book published by legal experts that collects all the important decisions and rules on a given legal issue, or might be a law review article, which is an article published in a scholarly journal.
Legal research can be a time-consuming process involving combing through hundreds of legal documents. Online databases have made it simpler and faster to conduct research by allowing an individual to generate searches and tailor the results to their specific location and field of interest. The trade-off to using an online legal database is that such databases often charge a hefty fee for the convenience they offer.