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Developing a Research Strategy: Where to Start & When to Stop

This research guide offers a step-by-step guide to tackling research, tips on the best places to start your research, and suggestions on how to recognize when your research is complete.

Introduction - How Secondary Sources Can Help

A good starting source will save time by explaining key concepts and rules, by citing and analyzing important cases, statutes and regulations, and by introducing common terms for your issue that will help you draft better online searches.

The best way to start legal research is with secondary sources — materials that explain and analyze the law. Most legal secondary sources have extensive citations to primary authority, such as cases, statutes, and regulations. Here are some of the secondary sources that can help you make a good start with many legal research projects:

  • Legal encyclopedias, such as AmJur or CalJur.
    Legal encyclopedias are useful for a quick overview if you're completely unfamiliar with a legal topic.

    Advantage: You'll quickly gain a basic understanding of the area of law and its terminology. You can then move on to more detailed sources.

  • Practice guides, treatises, law review articles, or ALR annotations.
    Useful once you have basic familiarity with the legal topic.

    Advantage: You'll deepen your expertise and find cites to relevant cases, statutes, and regulations.

  • Comprehensive looseleaf services (in print or online).
    Useful if you're already an expert on your topic and are ready to seek specific citations relevant to your narrow issue.

    Advantage: You'll find extensive and well-organized selections of primary authority.

Finding Nutshells

To find "Nutshells," search Ignacio, USF's online catalog, by key word. Include nutshell in your search (e.g., bankruptcy and nutshell).

Finding Hornbooks & Other Study Guides

Search Ignacio by key word. Enter terms describing your topic (e.g., copyright).  Many hornbooks and study guides are located in either the "Law Reserve" or "Law Open Reserve" areas of the library, so look for items that are located in either area.

Or, search Ignacio by subject (e.g., discrimination in employment). You can select "Limit/Sort Search" and choose "Law Open Reserve" or "Law Reserve" from the "Location" pull-down menu.

Finding Legal Encyclopedias

Search these legal encyclopedias online, or use their A-to-Z keyword/subject indexes to see if there are sections on your topic:

Finding Practice Guides & Treatises

The best practice guides and treatises combine in-depth explanations with extensive citations to primary authority. Some resources for finding a treatise or practice guide in your area include the following:

Finding Law Review Articles

Law review articles will contain plentiful footnotes citing primary authority and useful overviews of very specific legal topics.  The Zief Library's research guide, Finding Articles, has lots of tips on how to locate law review articles quickly.

Finding ALR Annotations

ALR ("American Law Reports") annotations survey and cite to the law of all state and federal jurisdictions on selected state and federal legal topics. You can browse the print ALR subject index to find the annotations that address your topic or search ALR annotations in the American Law Reports sources on WestlawNext or on Lexis Advance.

Finding Looseleaf Services

Looseleaf services excel at providing extremely comprehensive information about a legal topic.  Most looseleaf services address highly regulated areas, such as tax, health care, and employment and labor law. Here are some ways to a looseleaf service in your area:

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