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Taking the Mystery Out of Legal Research

by Mary Randolph
Copyright © 1990 Nolo Press

Thirty percent of the people who use the Los Angeles County Law Library--the second largest public law library in the country--have no connection to the legal profession, according to a 1989 study.

It's a fair bet that most of them are intimidated, or at least bewildered, by the library's more than 700,000 volumes.

Getting rid of that intimidation is something Bob Berring, a law professor at the University of California's Boalt Hall School of Law in Berkeley, feels very strongly about. "People think lawyers know magic," he says. "There's no magic. The fact is that lawyers have to look almost everything up. And if you learn how to do that, you can get your own answers."

Berring has been teaching people how to do legal research for 15 years. Most of his pupils are law students, but he also works a regular shift at the law school library's reference desk, where he helps non-lawyers who come with legal questions. And his most recent project is a videotape on legal research for non-lawyers, published by Nolo Press.

First of all, Berring says, legal research is misunderstood. "People view it as exotic and weird," he says. "But really, you can just use the skills you learned in other parts of life--in high school, when you did research in the library."

Berring is convinced that legal research is actually easier than many other kinds of research. "Very powerful systems have already been developed to help you," he says. The catch is that you have to know the legal jargon to get into those systems. But there are, in turn, tools that can help you learn that jargon, and it doesn't have to be difficult.

Some of the legal research tools easily accessible to non-lawyers include:

  • legal encyclopedias, which have discussions on almost every conceivable legal topic;
  • case digests, which let you find court decisions on the topic you're interested in;
  • hornbooks, which are scholarly discussions of different areas of law;
  • self-help and practice books, which give you step-by-step instructions for certain legal tasks; and
  • updating tools, which let you find the newest statues and cases on your question.

Where To Start

The biggest mistake legal research novices make, Berring says, is going into a law library and saying "I want to see some cases about _____." The blank is filled in with the subject the person is interested in--adoption, corporations, tenants' rights, whatever.

The blame for this mistake, says Berring, is traceable to the American system of legal education. Law schools use the "case method," which stresses selected decisions of appeals courts. ("It's a dumb way to teach law," says Berring.) So anyone who knows a law student or lawyer, or who watches television lawyers, hears them talk about cases and assumes that's where the law is found. Dead wrong, says Berring. Usually, cases are the last place a researcher needs to go. He says it's almost always better to start by reading some background information on the subject, to learn the vocabulary you need to know. Then you can go on to other sources of law, such as state or federal statutes.

But the most important step in research takes place before you set foot in the law library. Think about your problem, Berring urges, and formulate a specific question. If you know what kind of answer you need, you--or a librarian who helps you--will know where to look for it. You can't just dive into a law library and expect to come up with your answer. As Berring puts it, "the library's bigger than you are."

For example, you may be considering adopting your stepchild. Your question: how do I do it? You probably don't need to read court cases about adoption. What you need is a book that will tell you what to do--a self-help book, if one is available. If it isn't, you'll want to check out the practice books lawyers use, which have sample forms and instructions.

But what if your employer has just announced mandatory drug testing for all employees, and you want to know if you have a right to refuse? You would start with some background reading, in a legal encyclopedia, hornbook or periodical. You would quickly see that yours is a constitutional question, involving the extent of your right to privacy. Because the U.S. Supreme Court is the final decisionmaker where constitutional rights are concerned, you may find yourself reading some Supreme Court opinions, or at least someone's analysis of them.

Getting Help

Berring encourages researchers, once they have formulated a specific question, to ask law librarians for help. Librarians enjoy helping people, he says--but they can help only if people know what they want. He and other law librarians are constantly frustrated, he says, by people who don't really know what they're looking for.

Unfortunately, not all law libraries have librarians. You'll be able to get help in a public law school library or in a county law library in a medium-sized or big city. But in small towns, the only public law library may be a room full of dusty volumes, and you'll be on your own.

You need to seek help from outside the library, according to Berring, only when you've found materials but you don't understand them. Then you should consider asking for help from a lawyer familiar with the subject matter.

Berring recommends one last tactic before you call a lawyer, however: overcome what he believes is "the deep human resistance to reading directions," and read the instructions that accompany many books that contain legal forms. It just may save you a lot of time and money.

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The selected articles originally appeared in the Nolo News and are Copyright © Nolo Press 1996 and reproduced here with permission. If you find them of value, we encourage you to visit Nolo Press at their web site If you wish to post them on-line or otherwise distribute them, first read Nolo's copyright policy.

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