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Northern Illinois University
College of Law
David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library

Basic Legal Research

Overview of the Research Process

Analyze the research problem/fact pattern

Determine the relevant issues in your situation in order to find the applicable law. For these first steps, you will be looking into the broad issues involved; many of the factual details of your case may not be used in your initial research. Examples:

  • If you have an issue involving a breach of contract you will ultimately want to find case law (primary authority) identifying the elements of a breach of contract.
  • If the timeliness of a lawsuit is involved, you want ultimately to locate the appropriate statute of limitations (primary authority) in the relevant codes/statutes for your jurisdiction.
Increase your understanding of the relevant areas of the law through using secondary sources

Secondary sources are not the law itself, but explain the law and provide references to primary sources (primary authority, the law itself). The primary sources will ultimately be the basis for your legal argument.

  • Secondary sources will help you determine if you have a common law (case law) issue or a statutory issue.
    • A common law issue will be supported by references to case law but no references to statutes or codes will be provided.
    • A statutory issue will reference statutes & code sections, case law interpreting the statute, and possibly administrative materials.
  • The primary sources referenced in a secondary source are also likely to be the seminal cases in an area, or case law that make a significant contribution to the area of law related to a statute, so they are excellent examples to read to further your understanding of an issue.
Read the primary sources (cases and/or statutes) referenced in the secondary source

Never rely just on the information provided in the secondary source. Always find and then read the primary source in its entirety.

Use the primary sources to find additional information
  • For cases: look at references to other cases within your case and at the headnotes in Lexis and Westlaw.
  • For statutes: looking at an annotated code can assist you in identifying additional secondary sources, relevant case law and possibly legislative history.
Ensure all primary sources are still good law

Use Keycite/Shepard's services (explained elsewhere in this Guide) to make sure the primary legal authority is still good law.

Read new information in its entirety and look for references/citations to additional information

If you keep encountering the same resources/information over and over again, without discovering any new information, it is probable that the most relevant information has now been found.

Research Process Flowchart

Legal Research Process Flowchart

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