Doing Legal Research

In doing legal research, your goal is to be sure you can present your case in court. You must be able to tell the court what you want, present the relevant facts and evidence supporting the facts, present legal arguments with legal authorities to support your claims, and explain why your arguments requires the result you want in your case. Legal research is done to find support in the law for the legal arguments you are trying to make to win your case.

  1. Analyze the information to determine what the relevant facts are. For example, what is the subject matter, place, or property of your concern? Next, what is the overall problem and what is the desired resolution? Finally, who are the people involved? There may be other resources outside of a lawsuit, like mediation or arbitration, which would meet your needs without having to file a lawsuit.

  2. Next, determine what law applies and in what jurisdiction. For example, is the issue covered under South Dakota law? Are there any county or city municipal ordinances that apply?

    Most legal research involves state statutes because states are able to make their own laws in many areas. For example, South Dakota has its own specific laws in areas like custody, divorce, landlord-tenant laws, and some injuries. Some areas are covered by both state and federal law including consumer protection, employment, and some agriculture regulation. State laws generally give way to federal laws which are stricter and cover the same issue. Federal law covers things like copyrights, patents, bankruptcy, federal taxes, and Social Security.

    Local ordinances, including city and county laws, apply to things like building standards, construction, rent control, noise and nuisance, public health and safety, business licenses, parking, civil rights, and discrimination. These laws apply to city or county residents, homeowners, landlords, tenants, and small business owners. Local ordinances can never be less strict that federal or state law. Typically they are stricter.

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  3. Determine what resources are available. Your local library may have books to assist with legal research, like the one published by NOLO, to help you find and understand the law. You may need to consult things like a legal encyclopedia, a treatise, or legal periodical. Pay attention to key words and terms you can use to dig deeper. Also look for references to certain statutes, regulations, ordinances and codes, or relevant cases, specific to your question and jurisdiction. Dictionaries and thesauri might provide ideas for additional words or concepts to search. For a list of legal research resources, see the list below. It is also important to verify the resource you are using is current and up-to-date.

    Once you have an understanding of some key issues or words to research, you can narrow down your search. For example, if you have a question about a second DUI charge in South Dakota, you can go to the South Dakota Codified Laws website and use the site search to find the relevant statute, or law that applies to your question. A search of "Second DUI" will bring you to Driving While Under the Influence" and section 32-23-3 lists information regarding the punishment for the second offense.

    Sometimes, when there are disputes over statutes, judges interpret the statutes through case law. By issuing opinions or decisions on cases they oversee, words and meanings of statutes are clearer. Lawyers and legal researchers can use case law to help explain their disputes or issues. They often look for cases that are similar to the issue they are facing. Often, a search of a certain statute will lead you to relevant case law in that area.

Legal Research Links
  1. Black's Law Dictionary
  2. Code of Federal Regulations
  3. Cornell's Legal Information Institute
  4. FindLaw by West
  5. House of Representatives, Office of the Law Revision Counsel
  6. Library of Congress' Thomas
  7. NOLO Law Terms
  8. NOLO Legal Research
  9. South Dakota Administrative Rules
  10. South Dakota Codified Laws
  11. South Dakota Supreme Court Opinions
  12. South Dakota Supreme Court Rules
  13. United States Code
  14. United States Supreme Court Opinions