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A Primer Geared Toward Legal Research
Stacy Stern, Esq.

The Internet is becoming the best library ever with vast amounts of information available at only a click of the mouse away. While the information on the Internet often can seem unorganized and unwieldy, useful tools and guides are constantly being developed and improved to aid online research. There are a couple of basic approaches for finding information on the Web. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. The more you use the Web for research, the more efficient you will become at locating information. 

Indexes and Search Engines

Indexes allow you to search in a hierarchical, top-down kind of way -- like an outline or a table of contents. Most indexes are organized by topic. You can often determine the general nature of the contents of particular sites listed in an index by the names of the sites, or by annotations or descriptions of the sites. Yahoo is a great general index on the Web. This site, FindLaw, is focused on law, and has an excellent index of legal materials. In addition, FindLaw lists other legal indexes, many of which are also good places to begin legal research. 

Indexes serve as good starting points for research when you have a basic idea of what you are looking for and you feel that there is likely to be a web site that focuses on it. For example, if you are looking for information on copyright law, you should be able to find a copyright site by using a more general legal index. Most of the general legal indexes have materials divided into particular legal subject categories, such as contracts, criminal law, intellectual property, etc. To find information on copyright law, you would start by going to a legal index, then find the index of legal subjects or practice areas, and then go to either the copyright or the intellectual property category. Indexes are often searchable, but a local search of an index should not be confused with a search engine. 

Search engines index the words of documents on the Web, enabling you to search a large number of documents with a single search. Most of the useful search engines have indexed millions of documents, and can return the results of a search very quickly. AltaVista(tm) Search is a very complete and fast search engine. Search engines present a good starting point if you feel that you are looking for a needle-in-a-haystack. Say you are looking for information on what a specific expert had to say regarding a certain legal subject. Instead of going to a legal subject index and weeding through many web sights hoping that you will stumble across a reference to the particular expert, you could go to a search engine and do a search using the expert's name as a key word. 

Different search engines have different rules about forming queries. It is always a good idea to read the instructions about query formation for the search engine you are using in order to maximize efficiency. 

Search engines also offer a useful way to finish up if you are not satisfied with your results using a hierarchical index. Combining the hierarchical and needle-in-the-haystack approaches is the most thorough way to do research on the Web. The two approaches compliment one another. For example, using an index may be helpful in determining key search terms, or using a search engine may yield sites that are helpful in determining an unexplored hierarchical category. 


LawCrawler is a search tool designed especially for those interested in finding legal information on the Internet. The LawCrawler uses intelligent agents combined with the AltaVista(tm) search engine and database and other legal code and case law databases, enabling you to focus your search on legal information and on particular domains. Sometimes the all-purpose search engines yield huge numbers of results, many of which are often not relevant to a particular search. For example, if you are searching for information on Canadian copyright law, you wouldn't want to find every site on the Web that contains the terms Canada and copyright. There are many sites with copyright notices and the word Canada in them which would be picked up doing a general search, that do not contain any information on copyright law. Using LawCrawler would allow you to focus your search for Canadian copyright law on sites in Canada with legal information. 

There are two basic variables to consider when using the LawCrawler. First you want to choose the domain to search. For example, you could isolate your search to an individual country, to government servers in the United States, to commercial servers, or to government servers in specific states. Second you will want to determine whether to focus your search on legal information, or to include both legal and non-legal information. 

The main advantage of LawCrawler is that it saves time and increases efficiency by providing focus to your search. If you do not get enough results when using the LawCrawler for a particular search, then it is a good idea to expand your search to an all-purpose search engine, such as AltaVista(tm) Search, or to use the "World Wide" option to search LawCrawler. 

Searching Within A Page

Most web browsers allow you to search for words within a page. So if you come across a long web page and are looking for a particular key piece of information, you can search within the page with the "Find" function. In NetScape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer the "Find" function is located in the "Edit" menu. 

Finding Specific Kinds of Information Online

Primary Legal Materials: Codes, Case Law, Regulations

To find cases, codes and regulations, go to FindLaw's Cases & Codes page and select your jurisdiction. Different search techniques are available depending on which jurisdiction and database you use. Some databases allow searching by party name, others by citation, others by keyword and some enable multiple search techniques. 

At FindLaw we also have links to federal laws relevant to particular practice areas in our legal subject pages. For example, we link the Federal Tax Code from our Tax Law page. 

Unfortunately not all primary legal material is currently available online. However more and more law is becoming available, and we are hopeful that at some point soon, all the laws will be accessible online for free. The cases that are currently online for free tend to be more recent ones. In many cases, fee-based services provide more comprehensive case law coverage. If you can't find what you are looking for in a case law or code database, it's a good idea to round out your research with a search engine that indexes the Web, especially for historically significant case law or commonly referenced code sections. Many times people will put an individual case or code section online if they feel it is especially important. 

Secondary Legal Materials: Law Journals, Treatises, Commentary

The Web provides a rich source of secondary legal materials. Many law journals have sites on the Web and some of these contain abstracts or full text articles. At FindLaw we have listings of law journals that have sites online and law journals with full text articles online. You can search the full-text of law journals with articles online from FindLaw

Checking the legal subject pages is a good way to find commentary and news on particular legal subject areas. The secondary materials on the legal subject pages range from online versions of printed treatises and books to newsletters, general background information, specialty indexes and FAQs. 

Tertiary Legal Materials: Mailing Lists and Usenet Groups

Mailing Lists and Usenet Groups also serve as useful sources of information. Mailing lists can function as discussion groups on particular topics that occur by way of e-mail, or they can be a one way source of information on a topic that is delivered periodically via e-mail. The discussion lists provide a good way to communicate with others that share a common interest, and the newsletter type mailing lists offer a convenient way of receiving information updates. 

Usenet groups consists of topical discussions located at specific addresses in Cyberspace. The newer browsers allow you to view usenet postings. You thus arrive at a particular usenet group just as you would a web page, by clicking a link or by entering the URL in your browser (eg. Once there, you can read and post messages. Not all Internet service providers carry all usenet groups. You will only be able to reach the ones carried by your provider. 

Law Lists, a searchable compilation of law-related electronic mailing lists and usenet newsgroups, provides a great way to find a mailing list or usenet group that deals with a particular topic. Law Lists also provides information on using tertiary materials. At FindLaw we have information on topical Mailing Lists and Usenet Groups on our legal subject pages. LegalMinds provides searchable archives of over 200 legal mailing lists. 

People, Agencies, Organizations

There are many directories for finding attorneys and experts online. At FindLaw we have individual listings of attorneys and experts as well as links to others indexes of attorneys and experts. Martindale Hubbell and West have very large directories of attorneys which are searchable by practice area, location or name. Martindale's and West's lawyer locators contain attorneys that are both on and off-line. 

Bar Associations are another good way to find lawyers. State bars often have attorney referral services. We have a list of Bar Associations at FindLaw

A good way to find a specific person is through WhoWhere?, 411 or Switchboard. These are directories of people online. They often contain email addresses, phone numbers and postal mail addresses. Switchboard includes a strong section of phone book listings. 

The FindLaw Directories section includes Yellow Pages online, as well as phone number, address, e-mail and reverse phone number and address look-ups. You can also use these directories to find businesses online and well as contact information for government officials. 

Government agencies often provide useful information on particular subjects. FindLaw's U.S. Federal Government Resource page has links to many federal agencies. We also have links to relevant government agencies on our legal subject pages. Our State Government Resources section is a great place to start when searching for state agencies online. 

Legal Associations and Organizations are listed on our Legal Associations and Organizations page. If you can't find who you're looking for with an index, then it's a good idea to try a search engine, such as AltaVista(tm) Search. If the name of the person or organization is on the Web, a global AltaVista Search should find it! 

Legal News

There are several great sources of fresh legal news online. FindLaw provides legal news updated online day and night in our Legal News section. We have links to news sites, both legal and general, in our News and Reference section. Law Journal Extra, Lawyers Weekly and Court TV are other good sources of legal news on the Web. 

Off-line Research

You may not always find everything you are looking for online. In which case you will need to make a trip to an off-line library. Even if you find what you are looking for online, it is a good idea to supplement this research with verification via printed resources. 


Hands on experience is the best way to get good at finding resources online. Whether you are surfing with a purpose or just for fun, your time online should prove useful for future searches. FindLaw offers online continuing legal education courses on finding law on the Internet for those interested in becoming more familiar with some of the excellent legal resources on the Net. 

Happy Websurfing!

Copyright © 1996 FindLaw. All rights reserved. This article may be freely reproduced and distributed as long as no fee is charged, the text is not modified, and this copyright notice and the following contact information are included: 

FindLaw, Inc.

Copyright © 1994-98 FindLaw

See also Cyberspace Law Center

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