The Ultimate Paralegal Guide to Legal Research: Techniques and Best Practices

Legal Research for Paralegals: A Cornerstone of Legal Excellence

Legal research is an indispensable skill for paralegals, offering a path to navigate the complex and ever-evolving legal landscape. This article combines the essence of legal research with practical steps and real-world examples, creating a comprehensive guide for paralegals seeking to enhance their research skills.

What does legal research entail?

It is the process of identifying and retrieving laws that bolster legal arguments or decisions. Given the continual emergence of new laws and court rulings each year, paralegals must depend on comprehensive and efficient legal research to traverse the extensive legal landscape. For example, in 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom enacted 997 bills, while the federal government approved 249 bills. This immense amount of new information highlights the essential importance of legal research in the practice of law.

Understanding the Sources of Law

Efficient legal research begins with a grasp of the sources of law:

  • Constitutional Law: Establishes the government and defines its functions.
  • Statutory Law: Laws created by legislative bodies.
  • Administrative Regulations: Rules made by administrative agencies like the IRS or FAA.
  • Ordinances: Laws by local governments such as county boards or city councils.
  • Case Law (Common Law): Laws formed through court decisions, adhering to the principle of stare decisis, meaning courts follow earlier decisions by higher courts.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources articulate the law and include constitutions, statutes, regulations, ordinances, and case law. Secondary sources, like legal treatises and law review articles, analyze and interpret the law. They are not binding but provide valuable insights and context for legal research.

Mandatory vs. Persuasive Authority

Understanding the hierarchy of legal authority is crucial:

  • Mandatory Authority: Higher court decisions within the same jurisdiction that lower courts must follow.
  • Persuasive Authority: Decisions from other jurisdictions that may influence but are not binding on the court.

The Legal Research Process

Legal research is like eating an elephant, one bite at a time. Here are the practical steps:

  • Identify Facts, Issues, and Jurisdiction: Focus on the essential facts to determine the legal issues and relevant jurisdiction.
  • Find Relevant Law: Start with secondary sources to build a knowledge base, then move to primary sources for authoritative law.
  • Search Methods for Efficient Research: Use keywords and connectors like “and,” “or” and “not” in legal databases to refine search results. Utilize proximity connectors and phrase searches for more precise outcomes.
  • Where to Conduct Research: Use subscription-based platforms like LexisNexis and Westlaw for comprehensive research. Free online sources can also be effective for both secondary and primary law research.
  • Check Law Validity: Use citators to ensure the law you found is still valid and relevant.

Practical Application, A Case Study:

Consider this scenario: John Doe, a freelance photographer, discovers that a local magazine has used one of his photographs without permission or compensation. To research potential copyright infringement and to understand his rights and possible remedies, John begins with secondary sources to gain an overview of copyright law. He then examines specific case law and relevant statutes, such as Title 17 of the United States Code, which governs copyright law. He also researches cases that have set precedents for copyright infringement, particularly focusing on cases involving photography and unauthorized use in publications.


Legal research is a dynamic and essential skill for paralegals. By mastering the sources of law, understanding the distinction between primary and secondary sources, and following a structured research process, paralegals can significantly contribute to the success of legal cases. Remember, effective legal research can be the deciding factor in legal outcomes, making it a skill worth refining for every paralegal.

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