Crook County, Oregon
Introduction to Legal Research
Commencing work on a legal research project can be an overwhelming prospect. However, possessing an analytical framework and knowledge of what resources exist is half the battle. This page is designed to give you that framework and basic knowledge.
Building a Framework
Before researching the law, you must clearly define what you will be searching for and where you will look. The following steps will assist you in building your research foundation:
Categories of Legal Resources
In every research situation, you need to find laws that control the issue you are researching. But before you locate such laws, you must first understand the hierarchy among the materials you will find and how they should be applied. Legal authority is divided into categories based upon whether it is binding upon a particular jurisdiction.
The first division is made between mandatory and persuasive authority. Mandatory authority is binding on the court that would decide a conflict if the situation were litigated. For example, in a question of Oregon law, mandatory or binding authority includes Oregon's constitution, statutes enacted by the Oregon legislature, opinions of the highest court above the court deciding the matter, and Oregon administrative rules. Persuasive authority is not binding, but may be followed if relevant and well reasoned. Authority may be merely persuasive if it is from a different jurisdiction or if it is not produced by a law-making body. In a question of Oregon law, examples of persuasive authority include a similar Idaho statute, an opinion of a Washington state court, and a law review article.
The second division is made between primary and secondary authority. Primary authority is law produced by governmental bodies with law-making power such as statutes, judicial opinions, and administrative rules and regulations. Secondary authorities, in contrast, are materials that are written about the law, generally by practicing attorneys, law professors, or legal editors such as law practice guids, treatises, law review articles, and legal encyclopedias. Secondary sources are designed to aid researchers in understanding the "big picture" of an area of law, and assist them in locating primary authority. Looking at both divisions in the law described above, it is important to note that persuasive authority may be either primary or secondary authority, while mandatory authority is always primary.
Digging In: Putting Your Research Terms to Work
The following steps will provide you with a basic framework for the research process:
You should end your research when you have no holes in your analysis and you begin seeing the same authorities repeatedly.
Print versus Online Sources
Living in the technological age, legal researchers have more and more resources available online. However, starting your legal research process with printed materials can often be more productive because books tend to provide more context. Some researchers also find it easier to read more carefully and thoroughly in print than on a computer screen. That being said, online research has its advantages as well. These advantages include quick and efficient search functions and the convenience of downloading or printing documents at the touch of a button. No matter which source a researcher chooses to utilize, they must ensure it is current, accurate, and published by a reputable source. Such verification can sometimes prove difficult with online resources, but is generally quite easy with those in print.
For more detailed information on legal research in Oregon, please refer to the law library's copy of Oregon Legal Research, 2nd Edition by Suzanne Rowe. This book is not available for checkout, but is located in the law library on the public research terminal desk.