Research a legal question


The research process can help you identify and find law—such as statutes, regulations, and court opinions—that apply to the facts of your case. Research can also help you prepare arguments that you can use in court.

As you begin your research, you want to consider two things. First, do you have a legal right to sue. What law or rules were broken? Second, you also want to think about damages. What remedy do you want from the court, are you entitled to it, and how will you prove the amount of damages? Keep those goals in mind as you conduct your research.

The following list of suggested steps is based on Harvard Law School Library's Legal Research Strategy which is a step-by-step guide to legal research for beginners. 

Other helpful resources to help you get started include Chapter 2: The Process of Legal Research from the Washington Legal Researcher's Deskbook - 3d edition, and King County Law Library's You Want to Start a (Civil) Lawsuit: Resources.

Legal citation

Legal citations, in general, are used to identify the source of information supporting a particular point in a legal document (such as a motion, a brief, or a decision). When lawyers present legal arguments and judges write opinions, they cite authority. Using "legal citation" allows you to refer to legal authorities so others can find the references.

How to cite the information you find as you conduct your research:

Preliminary analysis

Before you begin your research, you need to lay the groundwork so that your research is on point and you avoid wasting time. How to do legal research in 3 steps, from Thomson-Reuters, has an outline about getting started.

Gather key facts

Always gather the key facts so you know the "who, what, why, when, where, and how" of your case. Take the time to write everything down, especially since you will likely need to include a statement of facts in a filing or brief. Even if you don't think a fact may be relevant now, write it down because it may turn out to be relevant later. These facts will also help you identify your legal issue.

Identify the legal issue

You won't know what to research if you haven't determined your legal issue. Are you trying to collect money from an insurance company following a car accident involving a negligent driver? Does your case involve a neighbor whose tree fell on your property and damaged your garage?

No matter the legal research project, you must identify the relevant legal problem as well as the outcome or relief sought. This information will guide your research so you can stay focused and on topic.

Legal dictionaries and encyclopedias can provide definitions and help you find related terms and concepts:

Determine where to file your case (jurisdiction)

Before you file a lawsuit, you will want to make sure that you are filing in a court that has the authority to hear the case. This concept is known as jurisdiction, and it consists of two main parts. Justia has an explanation of the concept of jurisdiction and venue for lawsuits.

Jurisdiction impacts your research because legal rules depend on where your case will be heard. For example, a judge in a Washington case must follow the appellate court decisions in Washington, but is not required to follow cases from other states.

Consult secondary sources

Secondary sources are materials that talk about the law. They offer a way to learn the basic terminology and structure of an area of the law. They can also help you identify the major cases and statutes for that type of law.

One type of secondary source is "practice materials" written by lawyers for use by other lawyers. They are used extensively in the practice of law. Practice materials are characterized by their "nuts and bolts" approach to legal issues. They usually focus on the law as it exists, with advice and tips for how to deal with real-life legal problems.  

These secondary materials often include forms or checklists and they are useful when looking for the most recent information in a particular practice area. In addition, these materials are often a great place to turn to when beginning research in an unfamiliar area of law. (see chapter 4 of the Washington Legal Researcher’s Deskbook - 3rd edition which is available at the law library)

Some Washington-specific secondary sources that are available at the law library include:

Consult primary sources

Primary sources are the actual law itself. They include statutes, regulations, cases, constitutions, and treaties. Statutes, regulations, and cases are most commonly relied upon in court.

Look at state statutes and administrative regulations

Statutes and regulations are primary law that comes from a legislative body or an administrative agency. Try to find the relevant laws and regulations that apply to your question. There may be more than one area of the law that is relevant.

Revised Code of Washington (RCW)s - These are the state laws enacted by the legislature and arranged by topic. Annotations to the law help you research the law further. These are cited by the title, then chapter, and then the specific section. For example, RCW 46.61.400 is Title 46 which is motor vehicles, Chapter 61 which is the rules of the road, and Section 400 which is about speed restrictions.

Sometimes it is helpful to see an earlier version of a current law. See the RCW Archive for copies of the RCW as they existed each year since 1973, and the Office of the Code Reviser session laws from 1854 to the present.

Washington Administrative Code (WAC)s - These are the regulations (laws) that apply to state agencies. These are cited by title, then chapter, and then the specific section. As an example, WAC 388-97-0040 is Title 388 (which are the regulations for the Department of Social and Health Services), Chapter 97 is for nursing homes, and Section 0040 is the section prohibiting discrimination.

Search for cases

Cases are "primary authority" because they come from appellate courts. They are helpful to see how the law or rule you’ve found has been interpreted, or how the law or rule has been applied in various factual situations.

Citations that refer to court decisions identify where a particular decision has been published in a reporter. Cases are cited by their case name followed by the volume number, the name of the reporter in which the case was published, and then the page on which a case starts. For example:

State v. Buckman, 190 Wn. 2d. 51, is in volume 190 of Washington Reports, second series, on page 51.

Spicer v. Patnode, 9 Wn. App. 2d, 283, is in volume 9 of the Washington Appellate Reports, second series, on page 283.

Some sources to use to find cases include:

  • Washington State Judicial Opinions from LexisNexis provides free public access to the precedential, published appellate decisions from the Washington State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
  • Washington Digest is a print resource in the library that can function as an outline of the law on specific topics. It shows the terminology and structure of the law, and you can use it to find cases on a particular topic.
  • LexisNexis is an online database available in the library that includes case law, statutes, and regulations.
  • Westlaw is an online database available in the library that can be used to search for statutes, regulations, case law, and secondary source material.

How to Read a Legal Opinion explains what judicial opinions are, how they are structured, and what you should look for when reading them.

Review and update your research

Once you've done your research and found cases, you need to use a citator to tell you if the cases are still good law.

Westlaw has Keycite, and Lexis has Shepards. Both of these services allow you to put in a case citation and then find out if the case has been overruled, or modified in some way.

The Updating Research section of the Harvard Law School Library's Research Strategy Guide can help you learn more about this process.

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