Research Guides

TMLL Research Guide - Chapter 6


Undertake background research

Before attempting in-depth research, get an overview of the structure and sources of the area of law.  The following background research is essential to efficient and comprehensive administrative research:

  • Identify the enabling act or other relevant legislation.  Often statutes are referred to by a section number ("a 10b5 action") or other shorthand, such as "the '34 Act" when referring to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  A basic knowledge of the statutory scheme is essential.        
  • Determine what administrative agency or agencies are involved in rulemaking and/or adjudication, and their relationship if more than one is involved.
  • Identify the types of pronouncements/documents the relevant agency or agencies issue.
  • Try to determine whether the judiciary is actively involved in lawmaking in the particular area, i.e., reviewing the validity of regulations or rulings, or whether the area is one in which great deference is granted to agencies and the courts play a limited role.
  • Develop a sense of the interrelationship between federal and state (and sometimes local) authorities.  Both federal and state agencies may play a role in your subject area and your research will need to cover both.

For both state and federal administrative agencies, directories exist that may serve as a guide to organization and a source of general information.  For the federal government, the United States Government Manual (Reference JK421.A3) and The Federal Regulatory Directory (Reference KF5407.C6) may be helpful.  Most states have similar guides.  In Maryland, a valuable source is The Maryland Manual, which is available on the Internet at:

One good source for more in-depth background information is Penny A. Hazelton, Specialized Legal Research (REFERENCE OFFICE KF240.S64; see a librarian for details) which contains chapters on a number of topics such as securities law, environmental law, and banking.  Among other helpful sources may be treatises on a topic.  An introductory chapter may include much of this type of information.  Other potentially helpful sources include:  relevant looseleaf service (many include in the "How to Use this Service" section some background material); a recent law review article (some provide a brief history as a preface to a discussion of more specific topics); or even a nutshell, hornbook, or other student-oriented source.

Take note of procedural rules

Determine whether the relevant agency or agencies have their own sets of procedural rules (in addition to the requirements under the federal or state Administrative Procedure Act and other general statutes affecting agency procedure) that must be followed and whether these will play a role in your research.

Find out what published sources are available

Valuable sources will differ depending on the subject and the particular agency or agencies:

  • If there is a looseleaf service or equivalent topical database in the field, consult it early in the process.  Either of these can be an invaluable resource for primary source material as well as useful background and/or commentary.  Take the time upfront to understand the organization and structure of any looseleaf or topical database you use.  This will save you time in the long run.
  • If a relevant agency has its own official reporter, find out whether the hard copy format is available or whether it is on Lexis, Westlaw or the Internet.
  • Treatises sometimes contain sections that reprint primary source materials, such as the text of relevant statutes or legislative history documents, or regulations or other agency materials. 

Make use of electronic sources

Because many print collections may not include extensive specialized materials (unless you are working at an agency itself), electronic sources are apt to be particularly useful in heavily regulated specialties.

Bloomberg Law, Lexis, Westlaw, and CCH’s Intelliconnect have extensive specialized materials for various areas of law practice. Consult the practice area and topic in one of these databases to determine what types of materials are included.

In addition to containing specific agency documents and materials, these "area of practice" databases may include subsections of statutory and regulatory materials that are more efficient to search than the larger inclusive statutory and regulatory databases.

In Westlaw or Lexis searching, increase your efficiency by making use of the applicable fields/segments.  These differ from those available for case or statutory law.

Make use of the Internet

One of the most useful areas of legal research on the Internet is for federal administrative materials.  For example, FdSys, the Government Publishing Office’s Federal Digital System, at, contains free versions of the Code of Federal Regulations, the Federal Register, and accompanying research tools. Also, many of the major agencies have home pages that are kept up to date and may include regulations as well as other agency materials. An extensive and valuable list of federal agencies with materials on the Internet is the Washburn University Law Library Agency Index at  State agencies are beginning to establish a presence on the Internet as well, with free versions of their regulatory codes and other agency materials. For Maryland, consult the Maryland government homepage

Update thoroughly

Be aware that precise updating is especially important with administrative materials, which may change more frequently and more quickly than statutory or case law. Familiarize yourself with the updating tools peculiar to an area of law or its sources. For example, some looseleaf services and topical databases contain their own citators or citator-type tools, such as updating tables.  On the federal level, online sources such as and will also alert you of proposed regulations.

Use informal sources

Be aware of the "informal" nature of much agency practice.  On both the federal and, especially, the state level, personal contact by telephone or e-mail with individuals involved in rulemaking or adjudicatory activity may be essential to obtaining complete and accurate information on the topic being researched.  Many of the print or electronic sources of documents will provide names of contact persons whose help and advice may be invaluable.

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