Legal Research - Starting Points
Where do you begin your legal research?
It depends on the legal information you bring to the library, the facts as you understand them, and your knowledge of the relevant law.
When you arrive at the library with a citation and wish only to read or obtain a copy of the source material to which the citation refers, proceed as follows: A citation is an abbreviated method for identifying a published source of information. E.g., you may have a citation to the Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) or to the Oregon Supreme Court (OR). For a further explanation of citations and a list of abbreviations for frequently cited sources, consult "Citations".
When you arrive at the library with some facts and the goal of “researching the applicable law”, proceed as follows: At the outset, the facts in your possession need to be organized in a manner which facilitates identifying legal issues and the applicable jurisdiction(s). This can be done in the following manner:
- Parties: Label the people/entities involved according to the role they played in your particular set of circumstances. E.g., landlord/tenant; seller/buyer; driver/passenger; employer/employee; municipality/taxpayer; etc. These characterizations are often indicative of corresponding rights and duties.
- Jurisdiction: Identify the municipality, county and state where the facts occurred. This will assist you in determining which law applies and what court has jurisdiction over the matter.
- Subject matter: Identify the subject matter of your inquiry. E.g., lease, contract, assault, estate planning, wrongful employment termination, etc. This will assist you in determining which area of the law will be the subject of your research.
- Remedy: What resolution of your problem do you hope to achieve? E.g, money damages, injunctive relief ( a court order directed against another party), prison term, restitution, draft of a will, contract, lease, etc. This will assist you in determining what forms, court pleadings, etc. are necessary to achieve your desired result.
Once organized in the above manner, the facts will be instructive in determining the next step in your legal research.
If you have little or no knowledge of the subject area, a legal encyclopedia is a useful starting point. For further information on legal encyclopedias consult "Legal Encyclopedias".
Another useful starting point is the American Law Reports Series (ALR’s). The series consists of court opinions from various jurisdictions grouped together by similar fact patterns, but differing in results depending upon the legal reasoning articulated by the court. For an explanation of the ALR series, consult "American Law Reports".
With your facts and the knowledge you have acquired from the legal encyclopedias and American Law Reports Series, you are now in a position to initially define the legal issue(s) you wish to research.
Once you have identified the legal issue(s) and the relevant jurisdiction(s), it is beneficial to conduct your research by first consulting legislative and judicial law ("primary law") in that order; and if necessary for further enlightenment, legal texts and periodicals (“secondary” law ).
For example, if the relevant jurisdiction is Oregon, begin with the Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS). For how to use the ORS, consult "Oregon Revised Statutes". Once you have exhausted the ORS for law relevant to your legal issue(s), you may need to research the Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR’s) if it appears that your problem falls within the jurisdictional authority of a state agency. For how to use the OAR’s, consult "Oregon Administrative Rules". Next, proceed to research judicial opinions from Oregon Courts. For how to conduct this research, consult "Digests"and then "Citators". Legal issues specific to Oregon also can be conveniently researched using Oregon State Bar Continuing Legal Education publications, all of which may be found in this library using our online catalog or accessed online through the Oregon State Bar (OSB) BarBooks database. Search by subject using key words or search by author using Oregon State Bar Committee on Continuing Legal Education to find an alphabetical list of titles.
Problems that appear to be related only to a state jurisdiction may have a federal legislative dimension. This requires that you research the United States Code (U.S.C.). For how to use the U.S.C., consult "Federal Codes".
In the absence of state or federal law relevant to your problem, you may wish to proceed to research secondary resources to find policy arguments supportive of the outcome which you desire. For legal texts (treatises) consult our online catalog to find subject-related materials. Legal periodicals often shed light on current legal thinking. For how to find relevant periodical articles, consult "Legal Periodicals".
Consult "Oregon Forms" for information relating to sources for forms on a variety of subjects, including court forms.