Successful Summer Strategies: Research in the Real World
General Tips for Researching Statutory Law
How does a researcher know whether to search for a controlling statute
when assigned to research an issue?
Your assigning attorney may identify a significant statute (often by
a popular name); if not, ask during your initial discussion whether there
is a controlling statute or statutes.
Your examination of secondary sources or of a known case may reveal
a citation to a relevant statute.
Even if neither of the above occurs, you may need to conduct some basic
statute research to satisfy yourself that your assignment does not involve
What general points should I keep in mind?
Statute sections are rarely meant to be understood in isolation from
one another. It is always necessary to examine the surrounding sections
to fully understand a statute section's application.
Never assume that a term used in a statute section has its obvious or
colloquial meaning. The term may be defined within the section in which
it appears, or in a separate "definitions" section. Always check
for definitions to determine whether a term has a special meaning for
the purpose of the statute.
Should I use print or electronic sources?
Advantages in using print sources:
You will not incur online charges.
It may be easier in a print code to read surrounding sections and/or
to locate definitions sections, to get a feel for the overall statutory
scheme, or to review the annotations, especially if numerous.
It may be easier to locate a statute by using a print index, where
new index terms might be suggested to you, rather than by electronic
searching, which sometimes yields many irrelevant documents.
Advantages in using Lexis and Westlaw:
Lexis and Westlaw contain full versions of the federal and all states'
codes, including annotations. The services also contain databases
covering materials from the most recent legislative session which
may not yet be integrated into the code databases. The Lexis and Westlaw
versions of statutes are more current than those in the print volumes,
which are updated by annual pocket parts and/or by pamphlet supplements.
You can use the "Book Browse" (Lexis) and "Documents
in Sequence" (Westlaw) functions to see neighboring statute sections.
You can access documents from the annotations with a click.
You can use citators (Shepard's on Lexis or Key Cite on Westlaw),
both to check the validity of a statute section and to locate cases
that have applied or interpreted it.
There may be times, such as when you are litigating a case that arose before
recent amendments, that you will need an older version of a statute. In
general the law that applies is the law that existed at the time of the
occurrence at issue. It is generally best to consult a librarian when this
occurs to determine the availability of superseded code volumes for the
applicable jurisdiction. Lexis and Westlaw also contain some historical
Statutory language is frequently the product of political negotiation and
compromise, and may thus be broad and/or ambiguous. A researcher must search
for cases that have applied and interpreted statutory language.