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]

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

  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, Chancery Law Chronicles,[2] LexisNexis, Westlaw, 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.

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

Free-to-Use Databases and Software[edit]

Although many jurisdictions publish laws online (e.g., case law is often accessed through specialty online databases.[6] 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, Mindworks and Jurispedia.

Commercial Databases and Software[edit]

Commercial services for legal research include both primary and secondary sources. Commercial services can be country-specific, international or comparative. Commercial legal research tools in the United States are worth an estimated $8 billion per year.[7]

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

Third-Party Legal Research Providers[edit]

Legal research is known to take much time and effort, and access to online legal research databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw can be costly. Consequently, law firms and other practitioners may turn to third-party legal research providers to outsource their legal research needs.

On August 5, 2008, the American Bar Association, Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, issued Formal Opinion 08-451, entitled "Lawyer’s Obligations When Outsourcing Legal and Nonlegal Support Services."[8] Among other things, this Opinion expressly acknowledges:

Outsourcing affords lawyers the ability to reduce their costs and often the cost to the client to the extent that the individuals or entities providing the outsourced services can do so at lower rates than the lawyer’s own staff. In addition, the availability of lawyers and nonlawyers to perform discrete tasks may, in some circumstances, allow for the provision of labor-intensive legal services by lawyers who do not otherwise maintain the needed human resources on an ongoing basis. A small firm might not regularly employ the lawyers and legal assistants required to handle a large, discovery-intensive litigation effectively. Outsourcing, however, can enable that firm to represent a client in such a matter effectively and efficiently, by engaging additional lawyers to conduct depositions or to review and analyze documents, together with a temporary staff of legal assistants to provide infrastructural support.

  • * * *

There is no unique blueprint for the provision of competent legal services. Different lawyers may perform the same tasks through different means, all with the necessary “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation.” One lawyer may choose to do all of the work herself. Another may delegate tasks to a team of subordinate lawyers and nonlegal staff. Others may decide to outsource tasks to independent service providers that are not within their direct control. Rule 1.1 does not require that tasks be accomplished in any special way. The rule requires only that the lawyer who is responsible to the client satisfies her obligation to render legal services competently.[9]

The Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility thus concluded that "[t]here is nothing unethical about a lawyer outsourcing legal and nonlegal services, provided the outsourcing lawyer renders legal services to the client with the 'legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation,' as required by Rule 1.1."[10]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ J. Myron Jacobstein and Roy M. Mersky, Fundamentals of Legal Research, 8th ed. (Foundation Press, 2002) p. 1.
  2. ^
  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. 
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