Research Tips on Law For People Who Are Not Lawyers

Free advice, if you’re looking for it and it’s of good quality, is wonderful. Law is a field where it’s not so available. Problem with your computer? Thousands of websites are a couple of clicks away. Law? Almost no websites. I’m not sure exactly what to suggest.

Good books and articles are great, especially editions written in the last ten years or less, especially those written for lawyers, but most of the rest of us don’t know how to read them. The best books are treatises, they’re the most thorough and the most heavily supported with footnotes citing sources and many have late supplements attached to the back covers or as separate paperbacks, but that high quality makes them the hardest for most people to read. Besides a few words you’ve never seen, they include words that you know from general language but for which you don’t know the legal meanings; and the books written for lawyers don’t bother explaining what a lawyer would already know. And it’s not just words. Whole concepts go unmentioned, because a lawyer would know them, so the author doesn’t bother mentioning them to the likes of you.

So you get your revenge and find a book meant for regular people like yourself. That’ll show those elite snobs. But the lay books are missing stuff or wrong. It helps to know the source of the law the author is talking about, but lay books often leave that out (except for the most general mention), because laypeople don’t like footnotes or complicated things and refuse to read books that have them. A subject covered by state law varies by state, we have 50 of them, and lay books don’t bother telling you about differences. A subject covered by local law varies by locality, and we have over 1,400 cities that have at least 30,000 people each and we have over 3,000 counties, and that’s not all of them. So, try some books, but be careful.

Literal texts of many laws are available online, often for free. Some state governments post them; check states’ official websites. So does the Federal government (start at and scroll down). If you want a single place for finding them, visit Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute at <>.

You can get hints on how courts apply those laws and you can reconstruct past versions of those laws by looking in annotated versions of those laws. They’re expensive, but some major public libraries have them for the local state or the library’s big city, perhaps with quarterly updates at the end of a multivolume set.

Dictionaries are great. I wish I could recommend a really good one on law. The last time I looked, there was none. If you’re going to settle on something, Black’s Law Dictionary, now up to the 11th edition at least, is widely distributed (I’ve used only the 6th and earlier). The huge multivolume set called Words and Phrases had potential but wasn’t well-edited when I looked through it.

Don’t use dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged for this purpose. They're phenomenally good dictionaries, but they’re for general English, not legal, medical, or other specialized English. They may have the same words and even offer some legal definitions, but they do so from the viewpoint of general English and thus are less exact and less reliable for legal research you’d need for court and other important legal interactions.

The most reliable legal definitions depend on the word you’re researching and the reason you want to know. The Constitution does not have definitions per se but you sometimes can infer one. A statute, regulation, Presidential Executive Order, treaty, case settlement or other court document, or something similar may have definitions meant just for the source that has it. A court opinion may define a term but you need to be sure that the definition was needed for the court’s decision in the case and was not just an interesting aside that’s not binding (called an obiter dictum or, for the plural, obiter dicta); usually, do not rely on a concurring or dissenting opinion. A treatise or lawyers’ journal article may have a few very important definitions that may apply to an entire subject well beyond the book or article you’re reading. For example, a book on contract law may have several pages or even a chapter defining the word consideration, which is vital to contract law, because without consideration there may not be a contract.

To find recommended professional law books, especially on advanced subjects, find the names and schools of several law professors who teach the precise subjects you want to know, then search in their law school websites for the professors’ pages, because some of them post reading lists for the benefit of their students, and often you can peek. The reading lists are free, although then you have to find the books somewhere. Don’t contact the professors unless you’d like to pay them a lot.

Court opinions, also known as caselaw, are published in long book series available in larger law libraries or online. The online collections that are free may be limited to the relatively recent years, although U.S. Supreme Court opinions are available back to the beginning of that court.

Common law is the origin of much of the oldest American law in most states and in Federal law. It was formed largely in court opinions in England and America over many centuries. Finding the common law is not through statute but often through modern court opinions and treatises. Today’s common law in England can be ignored when studying American common law.

Territories, like Puerto Rico, plus the District of Columbia and foreign jurisdictions controlled by the U.S., like a U.S. military base overseas, have laws:

— territorial laws are likely published in ways similar to how state laws are made available, but I’m not sure if territories with smaller populations have their laws as well organized, especially if you’re not even there;

— Washington, D.C., is a city run by the Federal government, so legal research should be similar to that described above, except that there’s no state law; and

— foreign jurisdictions are run by various agencies, such as the Department of Defense for a base or the Department of State for a consul or embassy; the law on board an American aircraft or ship even when it goes overseas is likely U.S. Federal law.

Indian law, the law that applies to Native American Indian tribes, their members, Alaskan natives including Inuits (Eskimos) and Aleuts, and their property (I’m not sure if law of the Inuits and Aleuts is called Indian law but it’s of a similar kind), includes at least three bodies of law:

— treaties between native groups and the United States;

— law of the Federal, State, and local governments that apply to natives, their land, and related subjects; and

— tribal law that may have its roots in precolonial days, generally applicable only within one tribe.

Most or all of the tribal treaties are published. Their literal texts and the American court rulings that interpret and apply them and that interpret and apply other American law relevant to natives are available as described above.

Once in a long while, an old treaty has been uncovered, validated, and recognized as part of the relevant laws. However, a claim that such a document has been found, without more, may or may not be enough to use it to determine the law.

Precolonization law may include oral traditions that have been passed down through generations of native people. I do not know where to find reliable accounts of the content of the stories or oral traditions or on the methods by which natives determine and apply traditional law or when. You should assume that these vary by tribe. You may need to contact the relevant tribe, who may want to know your reason for asking.

International law, foreign law, and natural law include five categories:

— treaties and other international agreements, which apply to the parties who agreed to them, and which may be published or secret; if published, where you can find them depends on which nation agreed to them and how that nation publishes such documents, if at all;

— general international law, or the norms of international law, which are above treaty law and apply to nations even if the nations never agreed to them, even to a brand-new nation that might be formed tomorrow; the norms are, by their nature, unpublished but simply understood by people responsible for carrying them out; however, treatises have been written about them, although not all of the treatises need be in English or in libraries convenient to you;

— foreign law; if you want to know French, Jamaican, Mexican, or Chinese law, those systems are different from American law and research methods are probably different;

— physical natural law, such as the laws of arithmetic or geology; it’s found by reading the most authoritative books on, for example, math or geology, and usually they’re by professors and written for graduate students; and

— metaphysical natural law, which is theological law, which is learned by studying theology, but also one needs to determine which bodies of theological are law in the U.S. or other relevant nation (even under the First Amendment some metaphysical natural law may be relevant in the U.S.).

Courthouse libraries may be open to the public on a limited basis and with limited collections. Check the courthouse website to see if their library is public, or ask every court you want to visit whether their library is open to the public, and, if so, contact that library for details of access (hours, who’s allowed in, and so on). They likely stock less than law schools do, but they should have basics. Their hours may be weekday daytime only. Borrowing is likely forbidden. Court librarians will almost never answer any legal question, even a simple or obvious one, not because they don’t know or because they hate you, but because they’re probably not allowed to, in case someone thinks that’s official court advice on the law. Your assurances about your intentions won’t make a difference; they still can’t tell you. But they will gladly point you to what’s in their collection, so you can try to answer your own questions yourself. If they have separate libraries for the public and for local lawyers, and you’re not a lawyer but you need an item that’s not in the public collection but might be in the library you can’t use, ask a librarian if the item you need can be retrieved for your use. Be nice. Check with courts, like on their websites, if they have law libraries open to the public; they may have less material than schools have and be open for fewer hours, but they may be free.

There’s often a way to visit a law school library. For a one-time visit, call a law school library and ask if they’ll accept permission from a public library for a visit. Ask your public library if they’ll issue permission for you to visit a law school library. (In one city, the permission is by a yellow Metro Referral Card; other cities may have other methods.) Typically, this will be for one title at one library with the permission good for one day, although the item being in the library’s catalogue doesn’t mean they’ll have it when you walk in (a student might have it out), and if your permission expires you may have to apply again. As a practical matter and if you’re willing to work quietly and without needing staff assistance, you can look at many titles that are on the open shelves, as long as you don’t ask at the counter for anyone to retrieve anything for you. You probably can’t borrow anything or use any of their electronic resources. Be aware of library rules for other users and be within them even if you should be exempt. You likely can have more one-time visits, but you’ll likely need new permission each time.

For more regular access and maybe more permissions, you could ask the school if the library is available if you sign up and pay to audit one law class, without having to write papers, take tests, or answer a professor’s questions in class, and if it is you could use it again and again until your class term ends, often reading into long hours. You don’t ask the library this; you check the school’s course catalogue or website and ask the admissions people about library privileges.

Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is a service by which your public library might get you a book from another library system, such as a law school library. This may be limited to single-volume books and not include journals or anything loose-leaf. You may not be able to get even a single volume from a multi-volume set. You should find the precise citation to the book you want before you ask ILL to get the book; for that, check WorldCat, which is as close to a complete nationwide catalogue as there is, and it lists which libraries stock that book. Some public libraries won’t order from schools like Harvard for ILL but will order from schools which charge lower fees, especially if the public library doesn’t charge you for the service. If ILL can’t get the book except from a source that charges too much, consider asking if you can pay your library that charge. The book can take weeks to months to arrive in your hands and you may have only a couple of weeks, more or less, for your use.

A few websites let you ask questions. They’re generally only for information and not for advice; people who answer don’t become your lawyer by answering. In no particular order:

Stack Exchange has a Law website. It’s free. People who answer questions may not be lawyers, but you can click on someone’s name and see if they posted their profile. If you want the law in just one state, the person answering probably won’t know; but if the state law you’re asking about is the same in many states or you’re asking about Federal law, you have a better chance of getting a useful answer. Old questions and answers are searchable. If you’re used to other forums, those at Stack Exchange have more rules, but some people like them. This forum is at <>.

— Justia lets you ask a lawyer for free. The question has to be short; only 120 characters are allowed, and that’s only about 16 or 17 average words. Sometimes, a lawyer answers by suggesting you see a lawyer, emails that to you, and deletes or hides your question so no one else will answer it, which is annoying, but sometimes answers can be helpful. It’s at <>.

— USLegal Forms charges $35 a question and it can be specific to one state. Apparently, lawyers answer. I haven’t tried it but the website has an archive of past questions and answers, which are not easy to search but you can sample them to see whether you like the quality. The page where you can ask is at <>. The page where you can sample the archive is at <>. Searching is complicated but possible. While the site’s search function is not very helpful, you can Google using this method (supposing you want to know what’s been said about “certiorari”):


Google’s “inurl:” operator gets no space next to the colon and takes whatever part of a URL you want as a search limiter. You might use it to limit your search to just one domain.

Some I have not tried. It is possible that attorneys are the people who answer the questions posted, but that may be true only sometimes and you may not be able to choose, so these sites are riskier. One tip: Forums often have topical subforums for topics or by state. Post your question in the one most relevant subforum for your question. What follows are in no particular order:





reddit subreddit for Legal Advice (some lawyers participate; reviewed in at Vice)

Avvo (they promise a lawyer will answer)

LawGuru (they promise a lawyer will answer)

Rocket Lawyer (they promise a lawyer will answer; your first question is free and then it’s about $50 per question; they want your question to be detailed but you’re limited to about 80 words)

Law Degree: Top 50 Web Forums for Attorneys (this list of links to websites is dated but some of the links may be worth your trying)

Electronic legal research uses online services, both free and fee-based. Some free ones are listed above. Of the fee-based ones, the most comprehensive ones include Lexis and Westlaw. I do not know much about using them, and learning how may cost you in fees even before you get productive results. Training manuals may not be available. Some states may have public law libraries that offer one of these electronic research resources, and there you may be allowed to do limited amounts of free research on their computers, maybe half an hour a day if other people want them, too.

You may need to do advanced research. You may need to do word searches, like you would in Google, but searching in law behind paywalls is best done on expensive websites mentioned above. You may need to read loose-leaf services and journals, which are written by specialists for specialists. You may need old laws, bills from any time (bills would have become laws but they didn’t pass or got vetoed), or legislative history or the Federalist Papers for Constitutional history. You may need to see how a law was already applied by various courts to facts (you could read court opinions for that) or how a court opinion was considered in later cases (a process often called Shepardizing). If you’re learning a new field, legal encyclopedias are convenient but often less reliable than treatises while a casebook introduces you to the main caselaw on its subject but has less detail. I don’t know of a forum that supports any of that kind of research; you either pay a lawyer hundreds of dollars an hour (after which they may not tell you which law they’re relying on or may be vague about it) or you do your own research and take a great deal of time doing it. It’s probably slow and hard.

Be prepared to write lots of notes (bring your own paper and pens) and expect to make lots of copies (or to photograph many pages). You may need a pocketful of coins and bills and maybe a debit card, all for self-service copying. Don’t rely on memorizing reams of text. You’ll often need to quote exact words later.