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What You Always Wanted to Know about Legal Research (*But Were Afraid to Ask!)

This guide provides quick tips about common legal research tasks. It was originally prepared for a Bridge the Legal Research Gap program.

Identify Laws Early

Identify relevant laws early in your research process. If a law addresses the topic you are investigating, finding the law is essential. Cases are often based on the interpretation of laws.

Secondary sources like articles and books frequently cite to the appropriate laws.

And once you find the language of the law, the annotations in commercially published versions will lead you to important cases.

Note that laws are easier to use and understand when you use a print source instead of an online version. Laws have a hierarchical structure and many readers find that the layout of the printed page often makes relationships between sections easier to spot.

See also the Gallagher guide called the Statutory Research Checklist.

Update

Check the cover, title page, or database scope note to determine how current the source is.

In printed codes, look for a "pocket part" in the back of the volume or a free-standing paperback supplement following the bound volume.

Often a legislative service or the session laws (U.S. Statutes at Large or Laws of Washington) will be useful in updating a statutory code.

Go to legislative websites for the latest action on bills that would amend existing laws.

Do not automatically assume that online sources (like Lexis Advance and WestlawNext) are more current than print! Look for date of currency.

Finding Laws in the U.S. Code

Searching the language of the laws can be challenging. Often the laws don't use words and phrases that "regular" people use in talking about a subject.

Use tools like indexes and Popular Name Tables when you know the subject and/or the common name of a law, like the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Popular Name Tables

Indexes

Effective Dates

Legal researchers need to know the date of when a law became effective.

For federal laws, the effective date is the date on which the President signs the law, unless the bill specifies a different effective date.

For Washington State laws, the effective date is generally 90 days after adjournment of the legislative session, unless the bill has a specified effective date or emergency clause. Refer to Laws of Washington, RCWA tables volume, and RCWA pocket parts for dates of adjournment and 90 days after.

Cross-Reference Tables

Do you need to convert a session law or public law reference to a current statutory citation?

Use the tables volumes found at the end of the statutory codes, along with the indexes.

Codification tables are arranged by session law citations and

  • Session law to code section.
  • Previous code (Remington's Revised Statutes) to current code (RCW)

You will also find disposition tables for former code sections, indicating whether the section has been repealed or replaced.

Commercial sets (USCA, RCWA) provide more extensive tables